The commonality among graduation speeches


By Alex Swanson

In less than two weeks, the University will hold a campus-wide commencement ceremony complete with a commencement speaker and speech. I have no doubt that this year’s speaker, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will have insightful and motivational comments for the graduates.

Graduation’s approach this year has encouraged me to think on past famous commencement speeches: David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005, Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005 or John F. Kennedy at American University in 1963.

While they are not all as famous, there are hundreds if not thousands of these speeches delivered each year at various schools around the country, and the advice offered in each is applicable to every graduate regardless of year and college.

I started wondering if there are similarities between the most memorable and effective speeches and identified some common themes.

According to Wallace’s speech at Kenyon, an essential component of any speech is “the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ‘thing’ turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre.”

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He further hypothesizes that perhaps the most important component present in these commencement speeches is emphasis on the value of education.

But there’s something else, as Wallace and so many others prove through their addresses.

These speeches are a unique opportunity. They address a minority population. While attending a large university, it might not feel as if we, as students, are the minority, but less than a third of the population over 25 holds a bachelor’s degree in the United States.

A commencement speech is a chance to address a group of young people at the brink of an enormous transition, one that they have been consciously moving toward for two decades, which explains why failure is typically a large theme, as well. Graduates inherently have succeeded by one of the largest measures of societal success: obtaining a college degree.

In the midst of this accomplishment, however, they are warned that life isn’t just a journey upward from that point on. They are advised to somehow enjoy the inevitable failures and to view them as liberation from some sort of system and structure that wasn’t working for them anyway.

The call to take risks for personal gain and success is also prevalent. They say that graduates have to make their own luck; they have to take every opportunity. The value of hard work can never be overstated.

Simultaneously, and almost conflictingly, these speeches instruct graduates to think beyond themselves, to promote peace and global collaboration.

One cannot, in good conscience, leave out Wallace’s discussion on the meaning of life and progressing past what he calls the “default settings” in our way of thinking.

He insists that people are aware of the way we think and that we can control how to view any situation.

All this advice flies at graduates from every which way. Embrace failure, take any sort of action, promote peace, attempt to understand what it means to live and to die, be an individual, be part of a collective … The tropes go on and on.

Graduates are advised to do everything and anything, so long as they are conscious of their decision.

All the most revered speeches are about taking responsibility for the way in which one decides to move forward and enter into a working society, whatever way he or she takes.

The graduates have to be aware; they must be empathetic; they have to be curious about their surroundings. Somehow it all comes back to that.

This is an idea that Wallace heavily emphasized in his speech. Though it wasn’t frequently at the forefront of other memorable speeches, the idea is constantly present in one way or another.

For all the May 2015 graduates, first off so many congratulations to you. Secondly, take a minute to think about what advice some of the most remarkable people have previously given to those in your current position.

React to the advice that resonates most with you, and be aware of your own agency when doing so.

Alex is a junior in LAS.

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