I have no idea who gave the commencement address at my high school graduation and frankly I couldn’t care less. I remember nothing about high school except how completely forgettable the whole experience was. I have a vague recollection of the president of Xavier University speaking at my graduation from Felician College (the finest institution of higher education in these United States in my humble opinion) in 1998. I also spoke at graduation that year and was more concerned about my nerves than his words of wisdom. It was a small graduation in the grand scheme of things, about 160 graduates and faculty and family packed into the Breslin Auditorium on the campus in Lodi, NJ.
In 2003 I graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with my M.A. This graduation was huge and held at what was then the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, NJ. I distinctly remember that the Devils were in the playoffs so the arena was freezing and I was sitting with hundreds of graduates on what would, after the ceremony, go back to ice. I just about got frostbite at that ceremony. The speaker that year was a guy named Gordon Bethune who was the president of Continental Airlines. I remember thinking if he ran the company and the company owned the arena he probably get first dibs on being commencement speaker. No idea what pearls of wisdom he passed on to us mere mortals that day.
When I got my Ph.D. in 2010 at UMaine our commencement speaker was outgoing ME governor John Baldacci. I’m sure he had something to tell me but I just wanted to get my degree and get on to my graduation BBQ which is what the day was really about after seven years in a Ph.D. program!
Now all these men likely had something worth saying to me but graduation was simply not the time, I was too distracted that day. Graduates themselves will never be in a position to absorb the content, but nonetheless the commencement speech has great value and a rich legacy as a form. Graduates are either too scared, cold/hot, nervous, hung over, happy/sad, tired, bewildered or bored to listen. In addition I have yet to attend a graduation (with the exception of Felician) where the graduates on the floor could even hear the commencement speaker’s address. Whatever platitudes they spew are generally directed towards undergrads (as they should be) and in the grand scheme of things it is just one more boring lecture, right?
Well, maybe there is more to it, especially if you are not graduating. Although I don’t remember much about my own I have an ongoing nerdy obsession with these noble speeches. C-SPAN has an archive of over 600 commencement address and you can find many others on YouTube. There are some classic commencement addresses out there and I really encourage you to read/watch them. If you need a bit of inspiration or if you are feeling down try a commencement speech to boost your spirits! Here are a few to get you going (guaranteed to inspire you in some way).
One of the best out there is David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. His is poignant and even sad and listening now it is hard not to wonder what demons stood over his shoulders on the stage that day. He reminds graduates, “As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about ‘teaching you how to think’ is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: ‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
If you prefer comedy try Conan O’Brien at Harvard in 2000. Conan tells graduates “I left the cocoon of Harvard, I left the cocoon of Saturday Night Live, I left the cocoon of the Simpsons. And each time it was bruising and tumultuous. And yet every failure was freeing, and today I’m as nostalgic for the bad as I am for the good. So that’s what I wish for all of you—the bad as well as the good. Fall down. Make a mess. Break something occasionally. Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be.”
Perhaps the most classic and still one of the best is Winston Churchill’s Harrow speech from 1941. What must graduation have felt like in 1941 after so much death and destruction? Churchill’s speech is best remembered for the legendary lines “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.”
My favorite commencement speech is one I saw in person (although I was not graduating) at UMaine delivered by our most famous alum, Stephen King, in 2005. He said two things I remember clearly to this day. First he said “Don’t live in this place. If you’re a grad student or if you have a few more courses to pick up, fine. But if you’re still hanging out in Orono or Old Town three years from now, living like an undergraduate in some sleazy apartment or trailer park, there’s something wrong with you. This is not Never-Neverland. Peter Pan graduated back in ’73 and now has a nice little farm in Bethel. You are not the Lost Boys and Lost Girls, but if you stay here too long, you will grow the equivalent of donkey ears. . . If you didn’t have a better time here than you did in high school, you’re weird. If you want to stay here and keep being an undergraduate, you’re very weird.” The second thing he said was “Just…let me put it this way. I can find out where you live. I have my resources. And if I show up at your house ten years from now and find nothing in your living room but The Readers Digest, nothing on your bedroom night table but the newest Dan Brown novel, and nothing in your bathroom but Jokes for the John, I’ll chase you down to the end of your driveway and back, screaming ‘Where are your books? You graduated college ten years ago, so how come there are no damn books in your house? Why are you living on the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese?’ I sound like I’m joking about this, but I’m not. You’ve got a brain under the cap you’re wearing. Take care of the damned thing. Try to remember there’s more to life than Vin Diesel and Tom Cruise. It wouldn’t kill you to go to a movie once a month that has subtitles on the bottom of the screen. You can read them, you went to college, right?”
I wonder if the graduates at these ceremonies remember what the speakers said? True, all these speakers are celebrities and we tend to listen to celebrities in a way we don’t to others. If I were in the graduating class I likely would have missed most of the message too. But there are messages in these pieces and when I need some inspiration I read Wallace and listen to King and troll through the 600 or so recordings on C-SPAN. It is a treasure trove of humor and wisdom.
A final commencement speech gem that is probably the best piece of advice anyone ever gave a graduating class: Stephen Colbert’s classic line from his address to the graduates of Knox College in 2006. Colbert wisely pointed out: “I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.” It makes me smile every time.
It might be worth searching for your commencement address just to see what the speaker said. Maybe (s)he wasn’t a celebrity but likely had some words of wisdom for you, that, while impenetrable then, might resonate now. Did your speaker tell you to go change the world? Solve world hunger? Work for peace? Give to charity? Did the speaker advocate an idea or position? Did the speaker’s description of the future come to pass? These speeches can tell us quite a bit about what society, politics, culture etc. looked like in a given place and time. But they also tell us something about what we collectively hope for and maybe even more so, what we collectively fear could happen. If you went to two very different institutions you might even be able to detect a different message or tone. If you graduated in the 1980s the message might have been different than it was in 2002. The commencement address is iconic in American culture yet the group it is meant for doesn’t usually hear a word of it. Maybe we all need to go back and listen again for the first time.