As with TED Talks, best man toasts and eulogies, there is a structure to these short addresses because the audience is well-defined by occasion. Graduates stand at one of the greatest moments of their lives (at least up to that point). They are excited, scared, purposeful or purposeless. They need a little celebratory push out of the nest.
In old school philosophy-speak, commencement addresses fall into a category Aristotle defined as epideictic oratory: the rhetoric of ceremony in which praise or even blame is laid at our feet and guidance is given on how to move forward.
Like most wisdom (even the clichéd variety that is overrepresented in commencement addresses), it doesn’t go out of style. Even a cliché, “so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth,” Foster Wallace explained in his insightfully bleak address.
And even though they are written for the mortarboard and tassel crowd, these tidy packages of sagacity are worth opening at other important times in one’s life: career changes, weddings, breakups and divorces, becoming a parent, midlife crises, sending your own kids to college, today.
I’ve been bingeing on graduation speeches lately. Here are some I’ve mashed together for your entertainment and illumination. These references are jumping-off points to read or watch the full addresses. Or to prompt a search for the commencements by your favorite academics, politicians, thinkers, comedians, writers and other artists you admire. There are far less fruitful ways to spend time on a screen than these intravenous hits of wisdom.
Oh, the places you’ll go!
Graduation is a ritual of walking through a major threshold — simultaneously leaving one room and entering another.
Matalin preaches the “virtue of adventure,” as she called it. “Take time as you’re going through your life to think about where you are, not always where you are going.”
It’s advice I took for years, bouncing around the world at various jobs that held my passion or needs at the time, only later focusing on a traditional career. “Feeling alive is better than feeling secure,” she said. “Take chances. Make mistakes. Dabble. Change your mind.”
You are the chosen ones
Every year, new graduating classes are told that they are inheriting a broken system or that life itself will, at times, be oppressive. It’s a ritualistic slap of the fraternity paddle as, mixed metaphorically speaking, the safe college bubble bursts.
“There happens to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches,” said Foster Wallace, involving “boredom, routine and petty frustration.”
But it is not too late, these and other speakers explained. We have the knowledge to find solutions. That’s what our education is largely for, they remind us, not for accumulating wealth. (That’s actually one of the problems.)
And find solutions we must. The future is in the hands of graduates — which includes us.
Don’t ask “why doesn’t somebody do something?” when you should ask “why don’t I do something?” said Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, to the 2008 class of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Carville’s address alternated between funny, angry and passionate. “I’m here to plead with you, to beg you, to reject the siren song of cynicism,” which he mocks and calls pervasive. He asks graduates to adopt an “attitude” of optimism and involvement.
Many speakers take the occasion to cram in a final lesson, plant a last seed of truth.
Kingsolver instructed the students to quit smoking and drive the speed limit in order to “improve your odds of getting old enough to be wise.”
Sorkin also encouraged graduates to “develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks. Dare to fail.” He told a story about how his writing career began by failing and retaking a play analysis class.
Edelman had seven lessons that included working quietly toward thoughtful goals: “Don’t work just for money,” prioritize family and don’t be afraid of risk or criticism.
The last bit of rhetorical flourish of commencement is to go out on a cheer line, like the cymbal crash of a symphony so the audience knows when to clap and, in this case, toss their caps into the air.
Quindlen went out with, “Certainty is dead. Long live the flying leap.” Jobs cribbed from the Whole Earth Catalog: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Bush ends on this gem: “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse. I wish him well!”
But I’ll leave the proverbial microphone drop to a student, Donovan Livingston. His four-minute spoken-verse commencement ode to the power of education was delivered to the 2016 class at Harvard and should be watched in order to be fully appreciated.
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