The contents of a commencement speech

The Washington PostMay 19, 2014 

Commencement addresses have been caught up in protest culture, engulfing activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But amid the debate about speakers, rather than the speeches they might have delivered, I wonder whether the purpose of these addresses is clear. Are they supposed to be a font of life advice? A final lecture? An assertion of the value of free speech?

Celebrating graduates’ accomplishments while preparing them for the challenges ahead, making parents feel good about their investment and getting some challenging ideas into the mix while avoiding platitudes and self-aggrandizement is a genuinely difficult task.

John McCain’s 2006 commencement address at Columbia University was a drag not so much for his lengthy defense of U.S. involvement in Iraq but for the section of the speech in which McCain told the whippersnappers to listen to their elders. Saying “When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed and wiser than anyone else I knew” is not going to provoke any powerful moments of self-recognition. It sounds cranky and self-interested.

One of the best commencement addresses in recent memory was J.K. Rowling’s at Harvard in 2008 – memorable for the way it touched on two themes: her own experiences of profound failure and poverty; and the importance of imagination, moral and fictional.

“Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally, “ Rowling said. “Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative . . . are often more afraid.”

That was a sharp point in a speech full of them. What made the address so good was not that Rowling was famous or beloved. Rather, it was that she crafted a speech in service of the students, praising their accomplishments and spurring them onward. When soon-to-be graduates think about what they want in a speaker, they would do well to add that sort of thoughtful attention to their lists. That way, they might actually get an address that is as memorable as the hullabaloo that preceded it.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes on culture and politics for the Washington Post.

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