The typical college commencement address is something to endure, not enjoy. But some commencement oratory deserves to be remembered. Examples include Secretary of State George C. Marshall's 1947 speech at Harvard University, in which he outlined a program of U.S. economic assistance of the postwar recovery of Europe, and President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 speech at Howard University, in which he asserted that the civil rights struggle was entering a new stage - one in which "achievement" rather than legal equality would guarantee blacks a full place in American society.
Also memorable was the commencement address that exiled Soviet author Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn delivered at Harvard 10 years ago, on June 8, 1978. If the audience was expecting Solzhenitsyn to offer thanks to this country for giving him refuge after he was forced to leave his homeland, the writer soon made it clear that he had weightier things in mind. Speaking in harsh terms, he denounced Western society for its unrestrained materialism and neglect of moral values."I have spent all my life under a communist regime," Solzhenitsyn said, "and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal standard is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no standard but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either." He added that "The defense of individual rights (n Western countries) has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It is time in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations."
Solzhenitsyn's critique sparked a lively debate in U.S. intellectual and journalistic circles. In general, conservatives applauded his message, while liberals expressed deep reservations. But all who heard his address, or read the printed text afterward, could agree that Solzhenitsyn had presented an analysis of Western society that merited respectful consideration.