Speeches to the Graduates

'Students at a Lecture', by William Hogarth [1736], Jesus College, Oxford, via WikiCommons

'Students at a Lecture', by William Hogarth [1736], Jesus College, Oxford, via WikiCommons

How do you write a graduation speech? New Yorker cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan sat down to do that very thing and found it decidedly harder than he expected. What do you say to a hall full of bright-eyed graduates and their relieved parents? “Don’t tell people they can do anything,” the cartoonist’s wife advises him. “The problem today is that everyone thinks they can do everything.”

In 1979, Woody Allen penned a speech to a graduating class of students. It began like this: “More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Of course, Woody Allen’s speech was never delivered - it was published as comedy in the New York Times instead. But starting a graduation speech (often called a commencement speech in the US) with a joke is a good tactic. Or with a whole bunch of jokes, as comedienne Amy Poehler did at Harvard University. Sometimes, of course, the joke isn’t well-received, as US sports journalist Rick Reilly found recently. Establishing a personal bond with your listeners is also good advice, as Kermit the Frog will attest.

This list of 10 top commencement speeches includes Will Ferrell (“You’re about to enter into a world filled with hypocrisy and doublespeak, a world in which your limo to the airport is often a half-hour late”) and Bono (“the world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape”). This one features the recently-retired Oprah Winfrey: “So, how do I define success? Let me tell you, money’s pretty nice. I’m not going to stand up here and tell you that it’s not about money, ‘cause money is very nice. I like money. It’s good for buying things.”

Last year in the US, a nationwide competition, called the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, was held to decide which high school would have the honour of having the graduation speech delivered by President Barack Obama. The winner was Kalamazoo High School. Obama began his speech more conventionally than Amy Poehler and Kermit the Frog.

David Foster Wallace began ‘This is Water’, a speech given to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio, with the following joke: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” DFW’s speech is “about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: ‘This is water, this is water.’”

Addendum: If we’d known Jonathan Franzen had delivered a commencement speech just over a week before we wrote the story yesterday we would have woven it more deftly into the report. Alas, it will have to be an awkward addendum instead. Franzen’s speech was, like David Foster Wallace’s, delivered to Kenyon College in Ohio. Franzen’s theme was love and more specifically how “the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.”

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