Last month, thousands of commencement speakers told this year’s graduates how to succeed in life and work. Now, a few weeks later, does anyone remember what they said?
I doubt it. The commencement speaker at my own college graduation some three decades ago — I think he was a benefactor of the university who’d made his fortune in scrap metal — began his remarks by predicting that we’d quickly forget his speech.
He was right, or mostly right. About the only thing I can recall of his commencement address was his prediction that we’d forget it. One particular line persists in memory. Graduation speakers, he said, are like second-place finishers at the race track — destined to historical oblivion just moments after they finish their work.
I’ve had to give a couple of graduation speeches myself over the years. Whether the audience remembered what I said is far from certain, especially since I can’t remember what I said.
I count myself among the many skeptics who suspect that commencement speeches are wasted on graduates. They’re too anxious to complete the ceremony and get on with their lives to pay much attention to the person at the podium. The ceremony itself becomes a blur for those in the midst of it, as my wedding ceremony was a blur, too.
The great paradox of commencement speeches is that they’re best appreciated in middle age, when most of us are long out of college, seasoned in life’s victories and defeats, and better able to grasp the truth of whatever lessons a graduation speaker is trying to impart.
To a midlife listener, the optimism and earnestness of a commencement speech can be a back-to-basics moment, reminding us of what’s really important, refreshing our sense of possibility.
All of this came to mind while reading “The American Spirit,” a new collection of David McCullough’s speeches that includes quite a few commencement addresses. About McCullough, the acclaimed biographer of Harry Truman, John Adams and the Wright Brothers who’s also written books about the Johnstown Flood, the Panama Canal and the Brooklyn Bridge, you already know.
McCullough spoke in Baton Rouge some years ago about the value of libraries, his speech bringing the crowd to its feet. Not all speeches hold up well in print, but his do. “The American Spirit” doesn’t include his Baton Rouge speech, but there are many others, including a commencement speech at Ohio University in 2004.
Some of his advice to graduates:
- “Never forget that one of the greatest of our freedoms is the freedom to think for yourself.”
- “Read. Read poetry, read biography, read the great literature that has stood the test of time. Read history.”
- “See the world. Take up painting. Or the piano.”
- “Whenever you check out of a hotel or motel, be sure you tip the maid.”
If there is better counsel for graduates — or any anyone else — I haven’t found it.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman