the value of the commencement speech


 It’s that time of year, folks. Balloon sales are up, gowns are being rented, and people are fretting about the weather for the big day. Here at school (I teach IB History at an international high school), I’ve been thinking about advice to give our eager juniors who are studying elsewhere next year. Serendipitously, I came across this Dowser post, “Top 5 Graduation Speeches for Changemakers.” I’ve since made those speeches required viewing.

Dowser is focused on changemakers, but any do-gooder or student of life in general would benefit from the advice of Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Paul Hawken (WiserEarth) and Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank). Ellen DeGeneres is even clumped in there for her hilarious and heartfelt plea to follow one’s path. These people have all used their unique talents to make the world a better place, overcoming countless obstacles along the way. They don’t mince words, either: the common thread in these remarks made over the last few years is that we have more great, complex, and increasingly unavoidable problems to solve than ever. At the same time, their optimism is just as clear: today we have more tools and—despite the negativity of The News—more collective will to solve these problems.

Granted, you pretty much have to be optimistic and hopeful at a commencement speech. But the best ones, like these, don’t avoid the elephant in the room. Rather, they manage to inspire us while earnestly addressing the great challenges presented by adulthood. In that vein I’d eagerly add another to the list: the late David Foster Wallace’s well-known 2005 diatribe on the challenges of modern adult life.

Anyone familiar with DFW’s work can imagine that his “version” of the commencement speech would be smart, funny, engaging, long, philosophical, deeply personal, and ineffably, exquisitely his. And it is. If you’re a fan of DFW and a college grad, you surely had the same reaction to reading it that I did, which was to curse your speaker’s dreadful, generic lameness, well-intentioned as it surely was. (I had to email my friends to remind me what ex-Secretary of State Madeline Albright said to us in her speech.)

The implicit challenge dropped by these provocateurs is: so which side are you on? Given your absurdly elite background of talent, education and general privilege, are you going to carve out a niche of comfort in your own life and let the cards settle where they will for the rest of humanity, or are you going to use your skills to actively make the world a better place?  Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

I remember well, back in ’01, being dismayed by the number of talented peers who majored in Econ and were off to grind at investment banks, manage brands in corporate America, and/or reinforce various harmful dominant paradigms. Now, as school lets out for college grads and for teachers like me, it’s so very helpful to be reminded of this fundamental question. Here’s to keeping in Pure.


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