Why Are Commencement Speeches So Bad?
They’re either boring or snarky, and the motivation behind them usually has less to do with motivating graduates than with getting good PR for the school.
The college commencement season is at last over, and to nobody’s surprise, it has left a trail of pieties in its wake. A sampling of commencement addresses makes that clear:
“The sidelines are not where you want to live your life,” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, at George Washington University.
“Don’t wait forever to find your bliss,” Katie Couric, Yahoo’s global news anchor,” at the University of Wisconsin.
“We cannot always bend the world into the shapes we want, but we can try,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Wellesley College.
As a college professor, I’m always saddened by the disappointment that comes with most commencements. But I think that there’s a way to soften the letdown. I recommend that my students read in advance Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides’s 2011 novel, The Marriage Plot.
In no other contemporary work of fiction does college commencement play a more central role. With her Brown University commencement less than an hour away, Madeleine Hanna, the novel’s idealistic heroine, gets a phone call from a classmate telling her that her ex-boyfriend has been put in the psych ward of Providence Hospital following a breakdown. The timing of the call leaves Madeleine conflicted. Should she come to the aid of her ex-boyfriend, for whom she still has feelings? Should she go ahead with her graduation plans?
Madeleine’s parents are waiting to see her graduate. She doesn’t want to disappoint them, but as her classmates pass her by in the graduation line, giving fist pumps and high fives, Madeleine makes a decision. Still dressed in her commencement robe, she bolts from the Brown campus and flags down a taxi to take her to Providence Hospital. Her concern for a man she once loved outweighs being present for her own college graduation.
It’s a moment that reflects the priorities in Madeleine’s life. She has been true to herself in a way that no commencement speaker could be. Hers is an uplifting commencement. Lucky Madeleine!
To be sure, every once in a while a commencement speaker will deliver a speech that makes history and is uplifting. In 1947 at Harvard, Secretary of State George Marshall outlined the principles that would become the Marshall Plan and help rescue post-World War II Europe from economic misery. But most commencement speeches are forgotten five minutes after they are delivered whether the advice is serious or, as is increasingly the case, hip and ironic.
Every college that books a famous speaker knows the wager it is really making. The college is betting that the speaker will provide bragging rights; parents and grads will end up feeling so good about the graduation they have just sat through that in the coming years they will become donors to the college.
This year, according to the website Inside Higher Ed, the University of Houston shelled out $135,000 to have actor Matthew McConaughey speak to its grads and justified its decision by declaring, “It’s the kind of star power that adds muscle to the University of Houston’s bold reputation campaign.”
The University of Houston is not alone in such calculated extravagance (McConaughey, it should be added, has said that he will donate his speaker’s fee to charity). There is a history of such extravagant commencement decisions. In 2005 former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani was paid $75,000 to speak at High Point University, and in 2011 novelist Toni Morrison was paid $30,000 to speak at Rutgers’s commencement.
It’s easy to imagine such lavish spending doing more good if it went directly to scholarship students, but it’s even easier to imagine an alternative to today’s commencement game. All we need do is contemplate a commencement in which the speakers consisted simply of a professor and a student—both chosen by the graduating class—and after they were done with their addresses and diplomas were awarded, there followed a reception in which students, their parents, and faculty spent the afternoon talking with each other.
Such an afternoon would not make nightly television. It lacks show-biz appeal. But such an afternoon would have the closeness that is missing from our current commencement ceremonies with their structured routines and marching. My guess is that, if the conversations among students, parents, and faculty were even halfway decent, they would be remembered a lot longer than the punditry and one-liners that are the staple of today’s graduations addresses.
Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed.