Torture at Commencement

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  6/05/2000

Senator Edward M. Kennedy delivers a dense speech on health care policy to the hundreds of students graduating Bentley College.

At the Berklee College of Music's commencement ceremony, John Sykes, the president of the music video channel VH1, spends a good chunk of his speech reciting the channel's achievements.

And after receiving his first honorary degree from a US university, Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stands before thousands graduating the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and briefs them on the latest intricacies of the peace process.

Commencement speeches have long been the realm of inspiration, including exhortations for graduates to fulfill their potential, advice on the dos and dont's of adulthood, and other wisdom to chew on as students depart the shelter of ivory towers.

But not every student is graced by such rousing rhetoric. Most colleges even prefer prominent people, such as a president or a Nobel laureate, to make memorable policy announcements, as did former secretary of state George C. Marshall in 1947 when he announced the Marshall Plan at Harvard.

Yet, commencement speeches, all too often miss the point, students say, with scientists detailing arcane theories, politicians promoting party platforms, and corporate executives touting products.

After Kennedy outlined the proposed "Paycheck Fairness Act," one graduate said, "It felt like this was just another chance for him to get before a microphone." At Berklee, after Sykes's speech, a student groused: "Did he have to sell his product to us during the ceremony?" And at UMass Lowell, the friend of a graduate wondered why politicians are invited to speak at commencements, "It's about them and their cause, not the students."

In attacking "trite, empty, long-winded orations" in the introduction of his new book "Onward! Twenty-Five Years of Advice, Exhortation, and Inspiration From America's Best Commencement Speeches," Northampton writer Peter J. Smith spells out clear rules of such addresses.

The speeches, he says, should be no longer than 15 minutes. They should be witty and amusing. They should avoid the minutiae of policy as well as "then-now" statements, including, "When I graduated the price of milk was . . . and now you all have webs to deal with . . ."

A speech should not be a screed, advertisement, recycled by the insertion of a few current references or one better delivered on the floor of the Senate, Smith said.

"Many speeches deserve their crummy reputation," he said. The political cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Smith writes in his book, once said, commencement speeches "were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated."

Three years ago, a now famous Chicago Tribune columnist felt students' pain. So, she decided to offer her own advice. In an attempt to sum up her life's lessons, Mary Schmich wrote a mock speech advising students, among other things: "Wear Sunscreen." After someone credited the speech to Kurt Vonnegut, it quickly gained fame on the Internet. Now, people call Schmich for advice before speaking at graduations.

"Until I wrote that, I never gave commencement speeches much thought," she said. "I just put myself in the place of the listener. The last thing I would want is to be instructed on some arcane topic."

"Inside every adult," she wrote in her 1997 column, "lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who'd rather be Rollerblading."

Now that Schmich is one of the pundits, preparing for her first live graduation speech this week at a community college outside Chicago, she is trying to figure out how to rise above the pomp and circumstance to hold the attention of an antsy crowd of caps and gowns. Learning from the mistakes of others, she says, she'll talk to students directly, not as a generic crowd. Also, she hopes to impart some wisdom.

"Ideally, you want to give people some thoughts that they will take out of that room and carry with them the rest of their lives," she said. "It's just a thought or two that might come back to them on a hard day."

Unfortunately, many students have to suffer through long, abstract speeches that have little to do with celebrating their academic achievements. In protest, or out of boredom, large beach balls can often be found bouncing through the rows of seated graduates.

Garrison Keillor, the author, culture critic, and veteran commencement speaker, is harsh in his criticism.

He compares most speakers to a "small, dark cloud passing through" an otherwise joyous public occasion. And he believes "the large cheeses and gray eminences and gasbags who go around and get hooded" should stay home and leave the day to the graduates and their families.

"The function of the speaker is similar to that of the harpist at the wedding reception: It's not a performance, it's to provide atmosphere," he wrote in an e-mail. "About nine out of 10 speakers forget this, and what you get is an elephantine ego coming up and doing headstands. The audience is high as a kite and most speakers take the excitement personally and talk a little longer. They shouldn't."

Asked for his thoughts, Noam Chomsky, the outspoken MIT linguist, also responded in an e-mail: "I am often invited to give commencement speeches, but refuse when I can - sometimes it's uncomfortable to do so. It's not the sort of thing I like to do."

Whether students would rather be Rollerblading, or anywhere else not sweating under a June sun wearing a black gown, John C. Hoy, president of the New England Board of Higher Education, says commencement speakers have a duty to convey certain ideas.

"It's probably the last rite of passage that young Americans go through," said Hoy, also a commencement veteran. "It should welcome them into the mature society as full-blooded adults. The pitch should be: Life is more than making money, shouldn't be confined to a narrow specialization, and should be lived fully."

Beneath the neoclassical columns at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, Carly S. Fiorina, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Co., delivered a version of that message.

But before stepping to the podium, she was careful to consult the graduates. After exchanging e-mails with scores of students, she said, she learned some wanted her to address the future of technology, women in the workplace, and the direction of Hewlett Packard, while others said they preferred she didn't discuss those subjects.

In the end, she said, the students made several things clear: "You wanted this address to be based on my life experience, not esoteric theory. You wanted to know the best way to make the decisions you'll need to live life . . . and on one point there was complete unanimity: Please don't run over your time."

At Hampshire College in Amherst last month, George Plimpton, editor of the "Paris Review" and veteran of more than 20 commencement speeches, delivered an itinerant speech, laden with humor, advice, and curious anecdotes about everything from the Earl of Chesterfield to the woes of the Red Sox.

"Maybe the best advice I've given," Plimpton said, "is telling students: ‘Go back to your rooms and unpack.’”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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