Commencement Speeches, What Would You Say ?

Chamba SanchezBy Chamba SanchezMay 30, 2017
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Graduation season rolled in again a couple of weeks ago.  It is that time of the year when we hear all these commencement speeches.  Speakers are supposed to encourage the new graduates to go out and defy the gods. Many people wonder how one prepares for these speeches and what makes one qualified to give one.

Graduates this year are facing immense challenges economically, politically, and socially.  Their democracy is on life support, and the new “gig” economy does not produce good-paying jobs for them. It is all about surviving as opportunities are scarce for the new college graduates.  Moreover, socially, the country is divided into unending cultural wars.

I have heard many commencement speeches throughout the years.  However, the best speeches I have heard were delivered by Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace.  Both of them were given in 2005.  Steve Jobs gave his speech at Stanford University, and Wallace addressed students at Kenyon College.  Both men offered some basics as to how students could directly deal with some of the challenges that they would face after finishing college.  These two men went beyond the flattery and the banal platitudes that characterized the substance of these speeches.

Steve Jobs’s speech was funny, profoundly witty, and filled with compelling personal stories that appeared to have been taken out from the pages of a book about Greek mythology. Ironically, Steve Jobs was a college dropout.  He explained to students that he did not see the value of staying in college; hence, he dropped out.  That might have been tough for those students graduating that year.  They have made great sacrifices, and a college dropout is telling them that college education might not be worthwhile.

Three themes ran through Steve Jobs’ speech: “Connecting the dots, love, and loss, and stay hungry-stay foolish.” There was so much wisdom in this speech. “Having setbacks are good for the soul, things that you do in life might not make sense to you in the short-term, but later in life, you will connect the dots,”  Steve Jobs told students. Moreover, what I thought was the best line in his speech, “life is a change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new.  Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now; you will gradually become the old.”

On the other hand, David Foster Wallace’s speech given in May 2005 at Kenyon College was somewhat more abstract but immensely useful for students to engage. Wallace was a writer and a university instructor of English who taught creative writing. He published a novel Infinite Jest and it was considered one of the best English-language novels written in the last one hundred years. Tragically, David Foster Wallace hanged himself in September 2008.  Wallace started his commencement speech with this didactic little parable.  This speech became widely known as “This is water.”

Wallace went on to explain to students that sometimes it is unexplainably challenging to see the most obvious things.  Yes, those things that are in our faces that we somehow are not consciously aware that they are there. Most of us can relate to this, sometimes the solutions to the problems we are facing might just be before us, but we somehow cannot see them.  Either by choice, as one might argue, we just avoid seeing the elephant in the room.

Wallace let students have it.  He told them point-blank that real education was not about accumulating knowledge.  It was about developing the skill of what to choose to think about the options we have in front of us.  Students were asked to take a look at their “default settings”; that is, the way how we are all have been wired and how those settings dictate our choices. He made the case that it is possible to alter this “default settings” and that students can develop that skill.  Furthermore, that they could start looking at things differently.  He also asked them to embrace the struggle of choosing and not letting their “default settings” dictate their choices.  That was what Wallace called “real freedom.”  He wrapped up his speeches with this, “this is water, this is water.” A genuinely brilliant commencement speech.

It would be tough to give a commencement speech in these times of economic and daunting political challenges facing this country. Yes, how does one tell students graduating this year that civility matters, that tolerance is good for our community and that social graces are vital for civil society?  Yes, how does an individual do this?  We have a president who was elected last year, who succeeded by breaking all the social norms of decency and that he continues doing it as President.

I have been in many graduation ceremonies, two of them as a student.  If I were to give one of these speeches, it would be the shortest one ever.

This is what I would say; I will start by talking about the humanity of their degrees. That is, talking about the usual suspects, the responsibilities of citizenship, global affairs, and the beautiful struggle of connecting with something bigger than oneself. In light of the new economic order in this country, I will also talk about their degrees as an economic payoff.  After all, these students have invested heavily in their education.

I will touch upon the following three themes: Flexibility.  I will tell students that they should know what they want in life and do whatever they can to reach that goal. But at the same time, they should be flexible enough and accept what life has in store for you.  This can also be applied in the political system we have in place.  They should defend their political positions.

Nevertheless, they must make an effort to make adjustments if things or circumstances changed or if they have been presented with a fact-driven persuasive argument.  In light of the corrosive partisanship in Washington, this will serve their country well.  I will also tell them that they should try to create their opportunities as good-paying jobs are no longer a reality in this country

Second,  I will make a case for them to develop a thick skin.  If you endeavor to avoid those who disagree with you, you will be excluding 99% of the people in this world, I will tell them.   Granted, some people might hate you, but the great majority of them might just disagree with your positions or ideas.  Always give people the benefits of the doubt unless they prove themselves otherwise.  You should know that in a free society, we let people say whatever they want in the name of liberty.  So, do not be a sensitive soul and smile even when people talk about your mom.  Rather than advocating for safe spaces where people have to act in a political corrected way, you should not care what people think of you and engage them whenever is possible.

Finally, I will tell students  to develop a strong foundation and have the courage and strength to say “No.” This is tough.  Life is a road paved with many temptations. We should all pray for wisdom so we can identify those moments when all the stars appear to have been aligned, and the natural thing to do is to say “yes.” Resist.

Thank you for reading.

References used.

David Foster Wallace Transcript of 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address. May 21, 2005. 21 May 2005. Web. 24 May 2017.

Krajeski, Jenna. “This is Water.”New Yorker 19 Sept. 2008.  Web. 28 May 2017.

“You have got to find what you love,  Jobs says.” 14 Jun 2005. Web. 24 May 2017.Weber

Weber, Bruce. “David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46.”  New York Times. 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 28 May 2017

Photos credit: Photos were downloaded from paid websites with password-protected from one of the colleges where I teach.

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