This graduation season, you’ve almost certainly sat through one of the worst literary genres, the commencement speech.[i] Yes, David Foster Wallace achieved greatness with his:
And there is always Kurt Vonnegut’s Wear Sunscreen speech. But most speakers are shackled by the speech’s conventions.
They begin with a list of thank-you’s:
I want to thank all of the students, the parents, the professors, the college president, the board of trustees…
With a little self-deprecation…
…for letting me have this opportunity to speak with your class. You’re a great audience, especially since you can’t go anywhere!
Followed by the story: narrating a personal obstacle that the speaker overcame…
…I may be the CEO of Ceo Industries now, but it wasn’t always that way…
…in order to laud the role of education in that success…
…In fact, when I first came to college, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I struggled with finding…
…while being optimistic, preferably with some Speech 101 rhetorical flourish:
…But I did know that I wanted to make a change. A change for the better. A change for the future. A change for myself. A change for the world.[ii]
And, of course, a quotation from someone famous to wrap:
Because after all, as Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
Except much longer. You’re welcome.
Once in a while, someone makes news by violating the tacit agreement that speeches need to stay positive, like last year’s “You are not special. You are not exceptional” speech by David McCullough. But a commencement speech seems to me an inopportune time to lay too much on the caps of the newly minted graduates.
For me, the problem may be, as usual for Hourman, time. We keep thinking of commencement as “the ceremony of conferring degrees or granting diplomas at the end of the academic year.”
But it’s easy to forget that commencement means beginning. Not end.
Commencement has turned into a phantonym, one of those words like inflammable that means one thing but seems to mean its opposite. Of course, we want to mark the end of college, the completion of the degree, even though many students have expressed some ambivalence about the ceremony when they know that they’re set to start graduate school almost immediately after finishing college.[iii]
So for many students, it’s not an end at all. But is it a beginning? What is it the beginning of, exactly? For cynics who think that school is not real life, ending the year means entering the real world. But that never seemed right to me, given how much real life so many students have already experienced. It’s not entering adulthood, which in many ways has also already begun for them, even as many people don’t see college graduation as the mark of official adulthood anyway, preferring marriage, or children, or, in my case, the purchase of real estate, which seemed more difficult to get out of than either of the others.
So let’s have two cheers for commencement, even commencement speeches. We need to impose all sorts of beginning and endings to portion our time: day and night, even though they start at different times for different people in different parts of the world and year; the year itself, although it too is an arbitrary marker; the seasons, although they are cyclical and, this year, totally inconsistent. We want to imagine that time, like the seasons, is consistent and linear—time flies like an arrow[iv], straight and in a single direction, when the way time and life[v] feel is more amorphous, scarily circular, or even sometimes unchanging, so that once in a while I’m surprised to see my older-than-24-year-old face uncannily staring back at me in the mirror.
Without the decorative sign posts and pit stops—our commencements to celebrate what we would love to think of as the beginning of post-collegiate life, or the end of pre-collegiate life; the candles taking up more room on the cake each year; a wedding and subsequent anniversaries—life becomes a series of one damned thing after another. A grim death march. No wonder we’re implored in commencement speeches to see life as about the journey and not the destination. We don’t want to go there.
Because in the beginning, and in the end, there is only one real beginning, and one ending, and we can’t remember either one of them. Let’s celebrate the rituals we have, not in spite of the clichés, but because of them. The speeches are trite, but maybe they’re the right ones for the occasion. And maybe, ideally, they even contain some truths. Unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s sunscreen speech, which he didn’t write and wasn’t ever a real speech. Unlike Gandhi’s famous quotation, which he never said.
Time: 65 minutes. Wasted too much looking for links.
[i] Being that I have attended thirteen graduation ceremonies that I can remember, I believe I’m in some position to evaluate them.
[iii] I didn’t attend my MA ceremony for that reason. Then I didn’t attend my PhD ceremony for a different reason.
[iv] But fruit flies like a banana.
[v] Not the magazines.