The 106 newest graduates of St. John's College were told yesterday that their studies of the great books will be valuable in the years ahead, particularly in a culture where learning and original ideas have become so rare.
"Mediocrity has become a national goal, and if you don't believe that watch network television tonight," Smith Hempstone, a former ambassador to Kenya, foreign correspondent, novelist and newspaper editor, told the largest graduating class in the school's history.
St. John's, which traces its origins in Annapolis to 1696, has been criticized for ignoring the ethnic studies and technology courses at other schools to focus its entire four-year curriculum on the classics of Western civilization.
The title of each student's senior thesis was listed in the commencement program, along with students' hometowns.
Topics included "A Critique of the Moral Education in Plato's Republic," "Desdemona's Handkerchief" and "Milton's Muse."
That sort of knowledge "will not put a dime in your pocket," Mr. Hempstone said.
"It will do more than that. It will leave you something approaching a civilized person."
Mr. Hempstone, former editor-in-chief of the Washington Times and associate editor of the now defunct Washington Star, was pointed, witty and mercifully brief.
He observed that he could recall little of the commencement speech given by an Oklahoma senator to his graduating Class of 1950 at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and assured the graduates, "you will remember not a word of what I'm about to say."
This class inherits a world with different enemies than those the World War II generation faced, he said. Today's enemy is the nation's cultural and educational void.
"The foreign foe may be vanquished, but never before have the ideas and ideals, upon which this nation has been built, been so threatened from within," he said. "You are about to enter a world that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
The speech was heard by a crowd of about 500 students, parents, friends and faculty members under sunny skies in the shadow of the school's 400-year-old Liberty Tree.
A total of 26 students also were awarded master of arts degrees from the school's Graduate Institute.
Students progressed from McDowell Hall, a former Colonial governor's mansion and the school's oldest building, along a brick walkway to their seats near the three, and returned by the same path, which was lined with potted chrysanthemums for the occasion.
Although sunny skies dominated most of the afternoon, a distant clap of thunder punctuated the end of the ceremonies.