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In Case Your Commencement Speech Was a Huge Letdown, Here are Some Greats

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If you’re anything like me, your commencement speaker wasn’t all that great. I graduated from Columbia in 2008 and I had no idea who Joel Klein was when it was announced that he would speak at my graduation (I wasn’t alone).

Marina Keegan, Yale 2012

The death of the very sharp and very spot-on new-Yale-grad and writer Marina Keegan over the weekend put especial poignance on her exit interview from life, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” She relates her great love for the community she found at Yale and how terrified she was of losing it. If you have graduated from college or are considering graduating from college you must read her essay, written so soon before her untimely death as to be unsettling and moving and wonderful. Read it here.

In the heart of a winter Friday night my freshman year, I was dazed and confused when I got a call from my friends to meet them at EST EST EST. Dazedly and confusedly, I began trudging to SSS, probably the point on campus farthest away. Remarkably, it wasn’t until I arrived at the door that I questioned how and why exactly my friends were partying in Yale’s administrative building. Of course, they weren’t. But it was cold and my ID somehow worked so I went inside SSS to pull out my phone. It was quiet, the old wood creaking and the snow barely visible outside the stained glass. And I sat down. And I looked up. At this giant room I was in. At this place where thousands of people had sat before me. And alone, at night, in the middle of a New Haven storm, I felt so remarkably, unbelievably safe.

The Writer: Neil Gaiman, University of the Arts 2012

“Nothing I did that was only for the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn’t wind up getting the money, either. The things I did because I was excited and I wanted to see them in reality never let me down.”

The Director: Garry Marshall, Lafayette College 2012

Garry is a man known for creating Happy Days and The Odd Couple, and directing Nothing In Common, Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, Valentine’s Day, and The Princess Diaries. You’ll recognize him, of course. My favorite line? “The first show I created was 99th in the ratings. It was called ‘Hey Landlord.’ You hear the applause? Nothing. It was not a good show. But that didn’t stop me: ‘All right, I’ll come back.’ Ten years later, ‘Happy Days’ was the Number 1 show. But everybody goes through this.”

The History Nut: Ken Burns, Georgetown 2006

Ken Burns, of course, is the master of the American history that’s shown on television. His films– on the Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, and National Parks– read a bit like a more-exciting version of the documentaries depicted in The History of Lying (though of course, the soundtracks of Ken Burns’ films are far better). A great quote from Ken’s 2006 speech (read the full transcript here), is then, in kind, historically minded:

A story. In January of 1838, shortly before his 29th birthday, a tall thin lawyer prone to bouts of debilitating depression, addressed the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. “At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?” he asked his audience. “… Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Earth and crush us at a blow?” Then he answered his own question: “Never. All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa … could not by force take a drink from the Ohio [River] or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years … If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” It is a stunning, remarkable statement.

That young man was, of course, Abraham Lincoln, and he would go on to preside over the closest this country has ever come to near national suicide, our Civil War, and yet embedded in his extraordinary, disturbing and prescient words is also a fundamental optimism that implicitly acknowledges the geographical force-field two mighty oceans and two relatively benign neighbors north and south have provided for us since the British burned the White House in the War of 1812.

The Science Fiction Icon: Ursula K. LeGuin, Mills College 1983

Full transcript here. Ursula is an incredible, incredible writer, full of imagination and intrigue. She speaks of the importance for a woman to refuse to either serve or rebel against male tropes– for us to live without imitation or parroting, but rather by going our own way:

So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy – that’s their game. Not against men, either – that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Macho-man or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?

Macho-man is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean – the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can’t play doctor, only nurse, can’t be warriors, only civilians, can’t be chiefs, only indians. Well, so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers’ tales about it, we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Macho-man. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.

The Really, Really Policy-Oriented President: JFK, American University 1963

John F. Kennedy, icon as he was, was really one-tracked when spoke to the American University in 1963. Nuclear arms were on his mind. Wonder why that was. The speech is still really inspiring, especially given to nuclear arms race to the bottom that’s been hovering over our heads for the last few years.

A few others for your reference:


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