It’s graduation time at our colleges and universities. The gowns and mortarboards are being collected by the rental companies in various states of dishevelment, and textbooks are being returned to campus bookstores by the truckload. For more than a million new graduates, it’s over.
Well, not exactly over, because now they have to start on real life, which is why we call it “commencement.” But the fun part is over.
I remember how delighted I was to graduate, even though I left it very late. I had been distracted by other things, such as work, and so lived my life to some degree backwards – serious stuff first, and fun later. I can’t remember anything about my own graduation ceremony, but I remember the enormous sense of relief afterwards.
For me, this turned out to be premature. Graduation is supposed to open up the world for you. For me it did the opposite, because it was obvious to everyone that I was unfit for anything except to become a professor. This inevitably involved more years of study, more graduations, and the acquisition of a pipe and a tweed jacket.
So, in the end, I went to lot of other people’s graduations, all of them un-memorable. The speeches always seem very grand and meaningful when you read about them in the newspaper, but they never sound that way at the time. I took out a couple of books of graduation speeches from the library. They include words of wisdom from Billy Graham, Barbara and George Bush, Mother Theresa, Studs Terkel, and dozens more. Read one after the other they were all depressingly similar, and the advice given to the new graduates was either mere bumper sticker philosophy or complete nonsense. For example: “Live for today, not for the future.” (A guarantee of failure in this competitive world.) “Character and wisdom are more important to happiness than wealth or material possessions” (This from speakers who were almost invariably multi-millionaires themselves.) “Life is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” (No it’s not. It’s a very long sprint.) It’s a good thing that nobody pays any attention to these speeches. The only really good thing was said by Lee Iacocca: “Just think for yourselves.”
The most useful graduation speech of recent years was never actually given. In 1997 the satirical novelist Kurt Vonnegut was credited with a very funny commencement address at MIT. The text was widely circulated on the Internet. It began with the words “Wear sunscreen,” and I remember laughing my way through it at the time and wishing I were as witty as Kurt Vonnegut. Alas, it was a hoax. He never wrote it, or spoke it. But the true author, Mary Smich, deserves an award for parody.
I have given some graduation speeches myself in the past, but nobody has asked me recently; I suppose the word went around. I dredged one of these old speeches out of the file, in the hope that I had done better than the dismal average. But no, I hit almost every cliché in the book, although I did let slip that wealth and material possessions would do them a lot more good in this world than any amount of character or wisdom. But they already knew that.
If I ever get a chance to give another graduation speech I will keep it short. “Think for yourselves,” I will say, “And for goodness’ sake wear sunscreen.”