Late spring the season higher education celebrates and sends forth its graduates, usually with pomp, circumstance and oration. The commencement address, often given by an honorary degree recipient and friend of the institution, figures prominently in this ritual. It has long been a fixture of academia, with commencement addresses taking place in the United States since the late 1800s. Interestingly, Oxbridge, the source of many American higher education traditions, eschews the commencement speech.
Today the commencement address has assumed a primacy in popular culture as a speech that says and does expected things. With fewer Americans familiar with Sunday sermons, speeches are now reserved for special occasions. In fact, our reference bank for public oratory is slim: the political stump speech to garner support, the state of the something address (most famously, the presidential state of the union), the best man’s toast at the wedding reception, the valedictorian’s address at high school graduation, and the college commencement address. We expect that each of these speeches will have a certain structure and evince a tone appropriate to the event. Whether or not we have expertise in oratory, we are comfortable critiquing these kinds of speeches for we implicitly believe that each must follow their particular convention.
The rules for graduation speeches are easily and widely recognized. The addresses invariably contain a combination of gratitude to those assembled, advice to the graduating seniors, commentary on the passage of time, aspirations for the future, and some linkage to a transcendent or timeless value. Well-researched graduation speeches contain some nugget particular to the institution; thoughtful graduation speeches leaven their advice with humor, often self-deprecating. Many graduation speakers connect their path to the lectern with the many opportunities open to the graduates in the audience. The audience of the address, too, is almost always the graduates, even when the degree recipients are outnumbered by their guests. Graduation speeches have achieved pop culture status with a Wikipedia page, online archives, and a self-importance ripe for satire.
The convention demands that the speaker emphasizes advice. At the heart of the graduation speech are words of wisdom. Commencement addresses, then, are celebrations for soon to be non-students who are still treated as students. It is, at best, a mixed message. The graduates are elevated – they are the focus of the event. But the graduates are also minimized, with last minute instruction as their parting gift. They are not yet trusted, for somehow the efforts of a college education came up short without these few last words. The commencement address is a rite for the not yet independent, the adult who is not treated as a peer.
The want for further advice has grown hand in hand with the emphasis on celebration. A college degree is an important milestone, but it is also something that more than 30% of all Americans achieve. With the exception of the sermon, no other public address has guidance at its core. We celebrate the success of the graduates without confidence in them.
Graduation speeches do not necessarily have to follow this script. A brief look at one of the nation’s most famous commencement addresses, George Marshall’s speech at Harvard’s 1947 ceremony stands out as an alternative. Other than an expression of gratitude, Marshall offered no advice, no personal anecdote and no humor. He engaged with his audience as intelligent citizens discussing an important concern: the crisis in Europe and the need to rebuild after the war. It is a serious, almost grim speech that argues for action. The address outlined what later became the Marshall Plan. Short on oratorical conventions but deep on ideas, Marshall’s address is studied to this day.
A Secretary of State is far from the only figure who can give a different sort of commencement speech. Any graduation speaker who chooses to address their audience as able and competent peers will have challenged the model. The convention is ripe for challenge, too. We need our treat our college graduates as adults, fully competent to consider complicated issues and to arrive at well-considered conclusions because that is why we have invested in their college education. We need them to be those self-directed and informed adults. We need to affirm our collective trust in them.
As for the commencement speakers of 2012, please forgo advice and admonishments and take a worthwhile chance: engage your college graduates in a dialogue as equals. They might just surprise you.