May is the season for commencement addresses, a genre of writing often marked by platitudes and clichés, personal anecdotes that are of questionable relevance, and hyperbole about the significance of this historical moment or the potential of this year’s graduating class. As people tied to the rhythms and rituals of the academic year, over the span of a career we are exposed to dozens of such speeches. Since most graduation speeches are utterly forgettable, it’s difficult not to become somewhat cynical about them. And yet, they often touch upon important messages about vocation, and so it’s worthwhile to stop and think about the genre and function of the graduation speech.
I can’t help but wonder whether students can truly hear the inspiring words of a thoughtful, well-crafted speech on the day of graduation, a day in which they are undoubtedly a mess of complicated emotions. Physically and emotionally exhausted, they are coming off of weeks of preparing final papers and writing exams. They are excited but also anxious about the future, which seems to have suddenly arrived. They are despairing over the prospect of saying good-bye to their friends, not to mention whatever stress or strangeness has come with the arrival of family members to campus to help celebrate the day.
Why do we wait until the very last day of their collegiate career to offer important insights about meaning, purpose and calling?
I’ve been thinking about what makes for an effective graduation speech in part because I witnessed a first-rate one this spring at Monmouth College, where the writer Min Jee Lee delivered the commencement address. The author of Pachinko and a finalist for the National Book Award in 2017, Lee is a masterful storyteller. Although her address was long and winding, for a few moments she transformed the assemblage of fidgeting bodies into an audience rapt in quiet attention. The majority of her speech was comprised of autobiographical stories — of her struggles as an immigrant from Korea, of schoolyard fights, health crises and other personal setbacks, and editors’ rejections of her writing. She magically wove these stories into an important lesson about the value of failure:
It can be good that you lost, because now you know more about yourself – you know what’s important and what’s not… Who you are and what you want – store those as carefully as you store your diploma.
Striking that rhetorical bull’s eye, of drawing upon one’s own experiences to yield meaningful insights for a group of new graduates, is difficult. I have listened to many speakers who miss the mark — their speeches are self-indulgent and only incidentally aimed at the actual graduates.
The New York Times recently featured quotations from some of this year’s commencement addresses, in the form of a multiple-choice quiz in which the reader tries to guess the speaker. In addition to testing one’s ability to recognize figures in popular culture, the piece is interesting for how it captures the spirit of this moment in our culture. Some of the speeches are unabashedly political, encouraging the audience to work toward various forms of social justice. Other speeches are therapeutic, reassuring new graduates to be patient or to accept themselves.
But some enjoin the young adults to pursue their passions and make decisions based on a deep sense of purpose:
Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.
Chadwick Boseman, one of the stars of “Black Panther,” delivered these words to the graduating class of Howard University, his alma mater. Drawing upon his own experiences as a student activist, Boseman went on to describe how questioning stereotypes and challenging the system, “opened up a path for me. The path to my destiny.”
Many graduation speeches are structured as a litany of advice, offered as a set of seeming truisms: work hard, follow your dreams, remember where you came from, etc. This form of commencement address is easily parodied, as it was by Steven Colbert in 2016:
Done well, however, this form can be effective and beautiful, as exemplified by Parker Palmer’s address to the graduates of Earlham College in 2015:
Palmer’s speech is powerful because the advice offered is earnest and hard-won (as he suggests when he mentions his own bouts with serious depression).
But because earnestness is not in vogue, other speeches take the tact of irony or sarcasm. This is captured in a new book by Carl Hiaasen and cartoonist Roz Chast, entitled Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You’ll Never Hear. Henry Alford recently reviewed this book and offers some interesting insights into the current “commencement address” scene (which often now includes subsequent book publication). His article includes links to speeches by J.K. Rowling (2008), David McCullough (2012), George Saunders (2013), Shonda Rimes (2014), Mary Karr (2015) and Donovan Livingston (2017).
Working against the usual expectations of the genre can be effective when it doesn’t degenerate into cynicism. This is the case with David Foster Wallace’s now famous address, “This is Water,” delivered to the Class of 2005 at Kenyon College. If you have never heard it, please stop reading and listen to it now.
Many graduation speeches are forgettable, but others can be a goldmine of materials to use when working with students about deepening their sense of meaning and purpose. I have used Parker Palmer’s address in a vocation class aimed at juniors, and they are helpfully provoked not only by his wise words but also by the reality that their own graduation will soon be upon them. Likewise, the audio clip of “This is Water” can have a confounding but powerful effect in a first year seminar, when graduation seems eons away. Given that so many commencement addresses can now be accessed on Youtube, it’s not difficult to imagine an assignment that asks students to choose a favorite graduation speech, and then to present it to their classmates with commentary about why they find it so moving. A little “pomp and circumstance” can go a long way toward prompting young adults to think seriously about their future.
Hannah Schell is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015).