Graduation tends to pass in a big, fat blur of relatives, traditions, dinners and parties – like all allegedly Big Days in our lives, we get preoccupied with the nitty-gritty details of an occasion rather than the symbolism behind a ceremony. This conceded, do you honestly remember your graduation speaker? That person who stood before your class of fidgety high-school or college seniors one day out of the year and purported to dispense crucial life advice? And I’m not talking to the class of 2014.
But some writers/actors/artists/thinkers have elevated the dreaded commencement address to a kind of high art form. Some speeches are worth remembering, it turns out. And as someone who may never again wear a cap and gown in earnest, it’s nice to have a new perspective on life advice from world leaders. So to the grads, the almost-grads, and the long-ago-grads, here are a few commencement addresses worth your time and attention. Wherever, whoever, whenever you are.
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College. Advice in a nutshell: Be a rigorous thinker. This one has gotten uber-trendy in the past few years, but the late David Foster Wallace’s eloquent musings on the real value of a liberal arts education remain by turns specific and heartbreakingly funny.
Amy Poehler, Harvard University. Ms. Poehler KO’d a Harvard commencement in 2012. Advice in a nutshell: Never be afraid to lean on other people.
Anne LaMott, Berkeley University. LaMott addressed the idea of a “spirit,” in her speech. Advice in a nutshell: Follow your soul, and don’t stress so much. Her description of ‘spirit’ is especially lovely.
Billy Collins, Colorado College. Former poet laureate Billy Collins, prefaced his speech to Colorado College with a disclaimer: “I am going to speak for 13 minutes. I think you deserve to know that this will be a finite experience.” He proceeded to talk about time. Both exacting and insightful, Collins’ advice in a nutshell: slow down.
Writer George Saunders, Syracuse University. Saunders told a recent class to “err in the side of kindness.” Advice in a nutshell: you’ll less likely to regret the things you DO than the things you DON’T DO.
Kermit, Southampton College. This one should be pretty self-explanatory. In 1996, Kermit the Frog offered some sage advice to students. In a nutshell: the pond is larger than you think.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Western New England University. Tyson told a graduating class to stay curious, at all costs.
Toni Morrison, Wellesley College. In 2004, Toni Morrison told a class of grads to venture towards real maturity.
Feeling sufficiently inspired? Ready to conquer the world, now that you have the tools of wiser men and women? All of this advice is hard to live by and probably none of it will save you from making certain mistakes, but tis the season for reflection, right? It’s nice to have a game-plan.