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A commencement address is the last formal lecture that most college graduates will ever hear.

A source of inspiration, a fount of practical advice, and a marker of a major life transition, the commencement address is a distinct writing genre that deserves more attention than it receives. Like caps, gowns, and “Pomp and Circumstance,” the commencement speech is an essential college tradition.

Tassels to the left, graduates’ futures to the right.

The writer George Plimpton offered this advice to Harvard’s 1977 graduating class: “Tell them you won't go. Go back to your rooms. Unpack!”

The commencement address is a rather odd literary genre. Its purpose is to inspire and motivate; its tone, uplifting and optimistic, yet hopefully leavened with humor; its goal, to offer pearls of wisdom as the graduating class makes the transition to life outside the academy.

The most successful graduation speeches try to encapsulate an essential life lesson in a nutshell—offering an unforgettable phrase or a memorable anecdote. Yet the advice can also be vapid and ephemeral. The humorist Art Buchwald, at USC in 1993, calculated the afterlife of a commencement address as 15 minutes.

The reason: In a bid to be inclusive and broadly accessible, speakers play it safe and resort to clichés. Don’t give up. Remember history. Embrace failure. Work hard. Dream. Be kind. Find your passion.

This isn’t surprising. The speakers’ charge is to inspire and motivate, not to offer complex truths.& Clichés are an anodyne choice. Clichés typically contain kernels of truth, and can communicate ideas concisely without eliciting controversy.

Which isn’t to say that all commencement addresses offer little more than pablum. A few have been history-making, like Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s 1947 call at Harvard for a European plan for postwar economic reconstruction or President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 commencement speech at the University of Michigan, in which he described his vision for a “Great Society.”

But most have a simpler goal: to encapsulate words of wisdom in a pithy or witty manner.

Some commencement speeches are funny, like Conan O’Brien’s 2011 address at Dartmouth:

“Today, you have achieved something special—something only 92 percent of Americans your age will ever know: a college diploma. That’s right, with your college diploma you now have a crushing advantage over 8 percent of the workforce. I’m talking about dropout losers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg.”
(Like some graduation speeches, O’Brien’s was unburdened by the need to stick with the facts. His 92 percent figure is far higher than reality.)

Or Dolly Parton at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in 2009: “But what has worked for me may not work for you. Well, take for instance what has worked for me. Wigs. Tight clothes. Push-up bras.”

Some of these speeches are profoundly poignant, like Steve Jobs’s 2005 address at Stanford: “Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

A few speakers try to distill their personal philosophy into a few pithy words. Take Gloria Steinem’s words at Tufts in 1987: “I’ll know we’re getting someplace when as many young men as young women ask, ‘How can I combine career and family?’” Or basketball coach Bobby Knight at Trine University in 2010: “I don’t believe in luck, I believe in preparation.”

Or, at a more instrumental level, Janet Yellen, now Secretary of the Treasury, said at NYU in 2014: “There is an unfortunate myth that success is mainly determined by something called ability.” Her goal was to challenge the common perception that intelligence and innate talents are the primary determinants of success. Effort, persistence, luck and timing, she pointed out, were equally important. Only by recognizing the role of external factors that advance will society take the steps necessary to promote fairer and more equitable outcomes.

The advice that commencement speakers offer tends to fall into several key categories.

In our therapeutic age, it’s not surprising that many orations refer to the importance of mindset. The advice that Margaret Atwood offered at the University of Toronto in 1983—maintain a positive attitude—is widespread. “You may not be able to alter reality,” she said, “but you can alter your attitude toward it, and this, paradoxically, alters reality.”

Also common is a stress on treating life, post-college, as an odyssey of discovery. The television commentator Rachel Maddow spoke at Smith College in 2010 about the importance of creating meaningful memories: “Do stuff you will enjoy thinking about and telling stories about for many years to come.” Or as the actor and producer Bradley Whitford observed at University of Wisconsin at Madison in 2004: “The joy is in the journey.”

Another customary strategy is to remind listeners that curiosity is what combats complacency and drives personal growth. As Lewis Black declared at the University of California, San Diego, in 2013: “Just because you get old, it doesn’t mean you have to let go of your youthful inquisitiveness.”

Like many graduation speakers, Salman Rushdie, at Bard in 1996, called on the graduates to embrace defiance, challenge societal norms, and assert their agency: “Do not bow your heads. Do not know your place. Defy the gods.” Or, as Naomi Wolf put this sentiment at Scripps College in 1992: “Become goddesses of disobedience.”

The importance of growth—psychological, emotional and social—is another conventional theme. That was the message of the Reverend David O’Connell, the bishop of Trenton, N.J., at Niagara University in 2008: “Are you a different person than you were four or five years ago? … If your answer is ‘no,’ then you should receive a magna cum mediocrity.”

Lots of these talks call on graduates to cultivate mental and emotional resilience to face life’s challenges and recover from setbacks. In former Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s words at Princeton in 2013: “If your uniform isn’t dirty, you haven’t been in the game.”

Or as former Facebook CFO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg said at University of California, Berkeley, in 2016: “When life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”

Or, in the words of Michelle Obama at Eastern Kentucky University in 2013: “Instead of letting your hardships and failures discourage or exhaust you, let them inspire you. Let them make you even hungrier to succeed.”

Assertiveness is another favorite virtue that commencement speakers tout. Said media magnate Sumner Redstone at Northwestern University in 2002: “Remember, true opportunity never knocks. I have found that I have to go looking for opportunity—and if I don’t find it, I have to create it.”

Political adviser extraordinaire James Carville called on graduates at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2013 to shout out: “I’m stronger than I seem, I’m braver than I believe, I’m smarter than I think.”

The idea that graduates are masters of their fate is another commonplace. As editor Lewis Lapham insisted at St. John’s College in 2003: “The future turns out to be something you make instead of find.” Foreign policy expert Susan Rice echoed that idea at Stanford University in 2010: “Things get better because we make them better; and things go wrong when we get too comfortable, when we fail to take risks or seize opportunities.”

Of course, among the most widely repeated themes in these addresses is to call on graduates to explore their passions and interests to better understand who they are and what they truly want from life, recognize the importance of lifelong learning, build and maintain a professional network, and have a strong work ethic. As Arnold Schwarzenegger put this at University of Southern California in 2009: “Just remember, you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pocket.” Or in the words of Katie Couric at American University in 2014: “If you’re too big for a small job, you’re too small for a big job.”

Yet at the same time, many audiences receive opposing messages. Give back to the community. Act with integrity. Maintain a balance between professional ambitions and personal life to ensure long-term health and happiness. Recognize that strong personal relationships are key to a fulfilling life.

Among the most famous commencement addresses was by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. In his most oft-quoted phrase, he said: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Here, he challenges the conventional understanding of freedom as mere autonomy or the ability to act without restraint. Instead, he presents a vision of freedom that is intrinsically linked with responsibility, discipline and a deep, sustained commitment to the welfare of others. He is advocating for a deeper, more introspective approach to daily existence, emphasizing mental discipline and empathy over the automatic, unthinking behaviors that often dominate our lives.

The novelist’s speech underscores the notion that acts of kindness and sacrifice are often mundane and not grand heroic gestures. True caring manifests in everyday interactions and choices, such as being patient, listening genuinely and doing small things that contribute to others’ well-being.

I find it bitterly ironic that the common themes in commencement addresses have little to do with the actual educational experiences colleges provide. While commencement speeches often espouse ideals like finding one’s passion, engaging in lifelong learning and prioritizing relationships, there is a notable gap between these ideals and the preparation students receive during their college years.

Most traditional college curricula are structured around acquiring knowledge rather than discovering personal passion or a clear vocational path. While students might choose majors or participate in internships, these options often do not provide the deep, reflective experiences necessary for students to discover truly personal vocations.

Colleges could—and should—do much more to incorporate more exploratory programs, internships and mentorship opportunities that are designed not just to fulfill degree requirements but to help students explore different career paths and understand their personal strengths and passions. Courses and workshops that encourage self-reflection and self-assessment could also be instrumental in this process.

While colleges teach specific skills and knowledge, they often do not emphasize the concept of lifelong learning beyond the academic context. The focus tends to be on preparing students to enter the workforce rather than on inspiring a continuous quest for knowledge.

Institutions could—and should—foster lifelong learning by integrating it into the curriculum through project-based learning, interdisciplinary courses and teaching techniques that adapt to real-world problems. Additionally, promoting the value of autodidacticism—self-directed learning—and showing how it can be integrated into daily life would help students maintain their intellectual curiosity after graduation.

Although many colleges offer extracurricular activities where some interpersonal skills can be developed, there is often a lack of formal education that focuses on emotional intelligence, relationship-building, conflict resolution and teamwork.

To make interpersonal development a priority, colleges could offer more structured programs such as workshops on communication, negotiation and leadership skills. Classes that require collaborative projects or that are specifically designed to address interpersonal dynamics can also be beneficial. This could be complemented by fostering a campus culture that values and rewards collaboration.

Incorporating these elements effectively requires a shift in educational philosophy to embrace a more holistic approach to student development. This involves viewing education not just as a preparation for a career but as a comprehensive preparation for life. It would necessitate institutional changes, including curriculum adjustments, new program development and a different approach to teaching and evaluation.

Ultimately, if colleges take up the challenge to more directly and thoroughly address the qualities extolled in commencement speeches, they can bridge the gap between aspirational rhetoric and practical reality, truly preparing graduates not just for the workforce, but for a fulfilling life. This alignment would enhance the value of higher education and better fulfill its role in shaping well-rounded, capable individuals who can thrive throughout their future lives.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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