It is perhaps ironic that while January is the month when most of us are making our resolutions and seeking self-improvement, it is practically a half year later when we are presented with a plethora of wisdom that may well contain the key to ignite our initiative. Every graduation season gives us speakers who use the occasion to emphasize who we are and who we are meant to become; and the fact that we are not actually sitting in the graduating class is beside the point. The internet enables us to tap into the best speeches without suffering from the heat and torturous bleacher seating so often associated with the ceremonies themselves.
The recent 2011 graduation season had its share of entertainment and wisdom. Here are just a few excerpts.
Conan O’Brien, a graduate of Harvard, delivered the graduation address at Dartmouth. He captured the irony of addressing the graduating class while President George H.W. Bush, who had received an honorary degree, was sitting behind him: “Before I begin, I must point out that behind me sits a highly-admired President of the United States and decorated war hero, while I, a cable-television talk show host, has been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today”.
Keeping with the theme of comedy and the Ivy League, Amy Poehler, a graduate of Boston College, delivered the graduation speech at Harvard. “I can only assume I am here today because of my subtle and layered work in a timeless classic entitled ‘Duece Bigalow, Male Gigolo’, and for that I say, you’re welcome”. She later turned more serious as she touched upon the graduates’ fondness for their smart phones: “I cannot stress enough that the answer to life’s questions is often in people’s faces. Try putting your iPhones down once in a while, and look in people’s faces. People’s faces will tell you amazing things. Like if they are angry, or nauseous, or asleep.”
The author Toni Morrison delivered the 2011 commencement address at Rutgers University, and appealed to the graduates’ sense of purpose with these words: “I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as the third right … I would rather he had written, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness’ or ‘integrity’ or ‘truth.’ I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter. But I urge you, please do not settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice — that’s more than a barren life; it’s a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.” Tom Hanks spent a significant portion of his speech at Yale outlining the daily choice that graduates will need to make between fear and faith: “Throughout our nation’s constant struggle to create a more perfect union, establish justice and ensure our domestic tranquility, we battle fear from outside our borders and within our own hearts every day of our history”. He went on to say “But we live in a world where too many of us are too ready to believe in things that do not exist….Conspiracies abound. Divisions are constructed and the differences between us are not celebrated for making us stronger but are calculated and programmed to set us against each other.”
Perhaps my favorite commencement address of all time is Steve Jobs’ address at Stanford University in 2005. He addressed how he dropped out of college but stayed on campus and took classes anyway, became a celebrated founder and young CEO of Apple Computer, and was promptly fired when he was 30. His remarks about the role of failure and rebirth make for great reading, particularly when six years after his speech at Stanford we hear Amy Poehler encouraging Harvard graduates to put down Jobs’ biggest hit yet: the iPhone.
In a world where learning never ends, no matter how old we are, we can always find a kernel of wisdom in some commencement address. It may be deeply meaningful and help us change for the better, or it may be as simple as this admonishment from Amy Poehler to the Harvard graduates: “Would it kill you to be nicer to your parents? They have sacrificed so much for you and all they want is for you to smile and take a picture with your weird cousins. Do that for them. And with less eye-rolling, please.”
Published June, 2011.