A Really Memorable Commencement Speech

Roy Costner IV was the valedictorian of Liberty High School in South Carolina. In honor of his achievement, he was given the opportunity to address his fellow students during commencement ceremonies. Most commencement speeches are forgettable, but his was not. It wasn’t because his speech was amazingly good. It was mediocre at best. It didn’t really follow a coherent line of thought, and a large portion of the speech consisted of “shout outs” to individual students. His speech is memorable because it was an open act of defiance against the school district.

He begins his speech with this jarring statement:

As I stand here before you, members of the school board, faculty, staff, family, friends, and fellow graduates. I first wanted to say that I turned in my speech to Miss Lynn, which….uh…she somehow seemed to approve, so obviously I didn’t do my job well enough. So we’re going to just have to use a different one.

He then ripped the “approved” speech in half, pulled out another speech, and began to read. Rather quickly, he told the audience that he is grateful for the fact that his parents led him to the Lord at a young age, and then he recited the Lord’s Prayer, which is based on Matthew 6:9-13.

Why the drama? Why the prayer? According to FOX news, the school district had been getting complaints from atheist groups about the fact that they include prayers in their school events. As a result, the school district banned prayer altogether. Costner’s speech was designed to get around that decision, and if you listen to the video above, you will see that it went over well with his classmates. I have never heard the Lord’s Prayer cheered as it was during his speech!

Now even though his speech violated the school district’s ban, it appears he is not going to suffer any consequences. A spokesperson for the district says:

The bottom line is: We’re not going to punish students for expressing their religious faiths.

When I read the news report about Costner’s speech and then watched it, I couldn’t help but admire the young man. His commencement speech was a one-in-a-lifetime event for him. Obviously, he wanted to share from his heart, but the school district’s new policy didn’t allow him to do so. As a result, he shared from his heart, but in such a way that he would be the only one responsible for breaking the new policy. I suspect that he also wanted to protest the policy, and he thought this would be a rather dramatic way to do so.

Now let me make it clear what I am saying. I have no problem with the idea that a commencement speech by a student needs to be approved by a faculty member. Students are not very wise, and they can end up saying some really stupid things. A high school has every right to make sure that whatever message comes from the podium doesn’t violate some core principle that the school promotes. Indeed, when I gave one of the commencement speeches at my high school graduation (back in 1981), it had to be approved by a faculty member. I was even told that if I departed significantly from my approved speech, my microphone would be turned off, and I would be escorted offstage. I had no problem with that.

I have a problem with artificially removing some viewpoints simply because they might “offend” or “upset” others. It’s one thing for a student to give a speech that advocates an illegal activity (illicit drug use, for example) or one that is truly counterproductive to society (telling students to go on welfare rather than trying to support themselves, for example). I can see why any school district would not want such messages to be part of a graduation ceremony. It is quite another thing for a student to give a speech about a driving force in his life that is encouraging him to be a better person. If a student thinks he has an idea, philosophy, or outlook that will really help others, why shouldn’t he be allowed to share it with his classmates, especially during an important event like graduation?

Would I have been just as supportive of a young Muslim man getting up and talking about how Islam changed his life and then reciting a Muslim prayer? What about a young Wiccan sharing about how her religion helps her in her daily life? What about an atheist encouraging all assembled to give up belief in the supernatural? I can honestly say that I would be supportive of such efforts. Education is about the sharing of ideas. If we strongly restrict what ideas can be shared, we make it harder for everyone to find the good ones! Now, of course, some ideas will be offensive to me. Others will be offensive to you. But if we can all settle down a bit and actually listen to the ideas (even the offensive ones), we might all learn something. Isn’t that what education’s all about?

Thank you, Roy Costner IV. You gave us all a little instruction on how education is supposed to work. I hope the school district is willing to learn from you.

4 Comments

  1. Jason says:

    The majority of the crowd didn’t seem to mind. Besides, I have to listen to Darwinian sermons and statements of faith everytime I turn on the telly or read a so-called science article.

  2. Johannah says:

    “Isn’t that what education’s all about?”

    Well…that does depend on your definition. That is, what one seeks to achieve in education. If, like the public schools, one purports to present children with an unbiased selection of information, then perhaps such liberty would be best.

    Though, I think part of the idea behind a valedictory speech is that it represent things the school as a whole, and especially the faculty, stands for. It must be hard then for a Christian, who’s underlying life assumptions are radically different from the world, to offer a speech that would please his teachers.

    Education is all about sharing the world with a person, using a given teacher or institution’s assumptions about ethics and logic. The teacher’s ultimate goal being a more rounded person who explores on his own with those assumptions.

    The place for open sharing of belief systems is actually in research and study, not in early training. Research is a part of education, especially as a student matures, but it’s not what it is all about.

    Of course, the best education would be one that acknowledges Christ as Creator and King. It would assume that the universe operates logically, and that we must research and go about other areas of our life with integrity. But then, that’s my bias showing : )

    Thank you for your post. I enjoyed your textbooks in high school, and now enjoy reading your blog!

    1. jlwile says:

      I guess I will have to disagree with parts of what you write, Johannah. I think education (especially at the high school level and beyond) is all about exploring new ideas. Now I agree that an education has to be built around a set of values and goals, so the education is certainly directed in a particular way. For example, from the time we adopted her, my daughter’s education was based on acknowledging Christ as Creator and King. However, I did intentionally include a lot of other worldviews so that she would be aware of what was out there and so she could think critically about her own beliefs.

      I am so glad you enjoyed my texts and are now enjoying this blog!

  3. Johannah says:

    Thanks for taking time to reply to me : )

    I’m sorry if I jumped on you. This assumption I hear from many, especially concerning the public schools, that ideas can be presented to children in a completely unbiased way bothers me.

    And yes, high school age especially is a great time to explore and test ideas on one’s own.

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