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Pearls of wisdom for the graduates a century ago

Published June 11. 2011 09:01AM

Only six of the 13 members of the class, however, chose to attend the Tuesday evening graduation ceremony held in the assembly room of the high school, to reap the words of advice and wisdom bestowed on them by the commencement speakers.

"The room was artistically decorated with the national colors, pennants, potted plants and cut flowers," a reporter for the Tamaqua Courier noted. "Across the room was stretched the class colors - purple and white - on which was emblazoned the motto: "In Limine" (Latin for "on the threshold").

According to the reporter, Fred Meredith, class valedictorian, delivered one of the best orations of the evening in a speech, titled "Might and Right." After the ceremony Meredith entertained members of the class at his home on Pine Street.

The main address was delivered by the Rev. James Daniel Kistler of Bethany United Evangelical Church, who spoke for 30 minutes. In it he showed graduates the wide road of life open before them, advising them to select the safest course on which to travel.

In that same (June 29) edition of the Courier, a writer said in an opinion that the "old time salutatory" addresses were disappearing at commencements.

"Nowadays the graduating essay is rather on the wane," he said. "At least the practice is going by of trotting out every graduate for a disquisition copied from some encyclopedia, while the audience is lulled to slumber by the song rhythm of the speaker."

The writer also did not offer much hope for the future of the valedictory speech, stating that it too "is another of the relics that seems to be passing into decay."

He recalled how the "white-gowned leader of the class" used to address the class by beginning "Comrades, the time has come when we must depart ..."

He also added how surprising it was to see the speaker unmasked of the "lofty idealism" which she had espoused in her speech.

"What a shock it was the next day to find her in a hammock perusing one of the six best-sellers, or stuffing strawberry ice cream into her eternal spirit," he quipped.

The writer did, however, admit to "glorifying" in the academic traditions of previous commencements.

"Well do we recall how the scholastic youth, his hair spatted down and shiny with bay rum or other greasy concoction of the rural barber, used to come blushing to the front, and spout a welcome in schoolboy Latin, which not a half dozen persons in the audience could understand," he reminisced.

In order to be effective, he said the graduation address must "get away from the traditional subjects like 'Knowledge is Power' and 'Over the Alps Lies Italy,' and must consist mostly of the personal observations of the writer."

"The audience does not care a hang about the number of illiterate there are by the census of 1910 in Patagonia," he explained. "But if a boy has built a wireless (telegraph) station in his back yard, it would be interesting to know just how he did it."

A local writer also made his views known on the value of college degrees. In a June 28 editorial, he questioned the value of an advanced business degree from an Ivy League school like Dartmouth. He said the business school graduate of 1900 was earning an annual average salary of $2,220 a decade later.

"Every one of us counts in his personal acquaintance college men who are grinding away at adding up columns of figures or tending ribbon counters, work for which six months in a commercial school would have given adequate preparation," he said.

The writer did note the advantages of the college experience, especially in applying and advancing the thought process whereby "professor and student were original explorers in an untried and undiscovered field."

"This gives a student the habit of thinking out things for himself, and discovering and creating successes out of situations where others see only failure," he said.

The writer also questioned how colleges were haphazardly conferring their degrees.

"Originally, the degrees of bachelor of arts was sought only by those who proposed to teach or live the life of scholastic research," he explained. "If one of the medieval bookworms to whom the title was correctly applied could see the modern bachelor of arts as he hangs around the stage doors of our theaters, he would be very considerably jarred.

"The United States Constitution expresses the American spirit when it decreed that no title of nobility should be granted by the United States," he said. "Theoretically speaking, academic degrees have been contrary to this national temperament, since their purpose has been to constitute a privileged literary class.

"Insofar as these degrees are awarded on strict merit, few will be disposed to quarrel with them. But a great many of our colleges simply cheapen themselves by the freedom with which they hand around these distinctions to pushing nobodies."

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