Like anything of substance that aims to cater to thousands of people at once, commencement speeches are invariably controversial.
The past few years have provided countless instances of someone—or many people—upset about the bigwig set to ruin their big day. President Barack Obama’s support for abortion rights caused a stir at Notre Dame. The CEO of ExxonMobil might have noticed a deficit of attendees for his speech at Worcester Polytechnic Institute—they were attending a protest “alternative speech.” Not to mention the uproar over commencement speeches by Snooki or Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Ali G. But those who protest are missing the point—the problem isn’t with the speakers (well, maybe in Snooki’s case it is) but rather with the notion of a celebrity graduation speech itself.
Graduation ceremonies are already too long. The traditional graduation speech, which involves a traditionally famous person delivering a traditionally cliched speech to a traditionally bored class, is an excellent candidate for removal from the ceremony. There are at least three good reasons to scrap these speeches.
The first involves the manner in which these speakers are selected. In efforts to find someone as non-offensive as possible, a selection committee gathers to find someone who won’t land the university on the front pages of The New York Times. This year, Duke settled on John Chambers, the chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems. He has been in charge of a Fortune 500 company for more than 15 years and won numerous social responsibility awards, meaning he probably appeals to a good cross section of the population—never mind that he only attended Duke for a year before transferring (he has also sat on a few panels here). Picking someone with such a tenuous connection to the school may avoid angry letters in this newspaper, but it doesn’t celebrate Duke or the Class of 2011 in any meaningful way. Hardly a surprise, then, that besides for a few scattered remarks about the basketball team and number of Duke students going to work for Cisco, Chambers’ speech could have been delivered at UNC (or any other school)—they love their graduates and want them to do well after graduation, too. Nor is Chambers any more qualified to give a speech about anything than a whole host of people with far stronger connections to Duke—it seems clear he was picked largely to avoid causing offense.
Of course, the selection committee could have picked someone else—an overly media sensitive selection process doesn’t necessarily mean the speech itself needs to go. But the second reason these speeches should go is that they place an impossible burden on the person giving them. How does your average speaker give words of wisdom to thousands of people to which he or she has little connection, with no guidance or set topic to speak about and little qualification to speak in the first place besides his or her success? Small wonder John Chambers began his speech Sunday by pointing out the enormity of the task before him, saying that a commencement speech “is the hardest presentation to give.” This from an expert in communications.... Go figure.
This leads to the final and most important reason for graduation to be eliminated. They are usually boring, because they say exactly the same thing year after year. Does any graduate really need to hear the same vaunted words of advice from strangers: Live your life the way you want to, take risks, be aggressive.
Take a look at this selection of quotes from the “top ten” speeches, compiled by http://graduationwisdom.com: “Don’t know that you can’t fly, and you will soar like an eagle,” “You have to leave that city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition,” “The most difficult chains to break are the ones inside us,” “There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
If you’re wondering why these sound similar, it’s because they are all delivering a variation of precisely the same message. And by one standard, these are the best speeches. That doesn’t discount the importance of the message being delivered, but it does suggest that it is almost impossible to be original in one of these speeches. So unless a speaker had some other distinguishing feature—having excellent delivery, perhaps—it is very hard to give a standout speech. Not impossible—watch Steve Jobs’ 2005 speech at Stanford on YouTube if you’re wondering what a good one is like—but very difficult.
I’m not suggesting we replace these speeches with 15 minutes of awkward silence (though in some cases that could be as entertaining). Instead of varying metaphors to convey cliched advice, we could spend that time celebrating the accomplishments of the class. Remember the convocation speeches from the University’s administrators, welcoming the class and highlighting our goofiest members (the one kid from Montana, or the one with the weird email address)? What happened to those kids? What has the class done together? Who has accomplished what? As nice as it is to try and make these ceremonies about the future, that’s not what they celebrate. Instead, they are very much about the past; they are about our four years together at Duke.
The focus of the Class of 2012’s graduation ceremony should be the Class of 2012. Eliminating next year’s commencement speech will go a long way toward achieving that goal.
Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior.
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