When you’re a college student, you can choose a lot of things. You can choose your major, you can choose (at least, starting sophomore year) your roommate, and you can even choose whether or not to go to class. But you usually don’t get to choose your commencement speaker. I learned that in the spring of 1992 when, upon graduating from Northwestern, I had to listen to 20 minutes of droning platitudes from Dick Gephardt, a former Indiana senator, Presidential candidate, and Northwestern grad, and always a cliché-ridden bore.
Other college grads get so much luckier. Oprah! Obama! Dr. Phil! Tina Fey! Some get a dull politician, others get a hell of a show. You can usually gauge a celebrity’s Q-rating based on the frequency and prestige of their commencement bookings. From 2013 to 2015, Ed Helms unleashed three straight addresses, at Knox College, the UVA, and Cornell respectively. Ten years earlier, students would have asked, “Ed who?" On the flip side, you could get stuck with a character actor like Richard T. Jones, who was widely destroyed on the Internet and elsewhere for improvising his entire commencement speech at the University of Maryland in 2011.
Most commencement speeches fall in the frosty mediocre middle, with exhortations to be your best self and go out there and change the world. But a few throughout the thousands delivered through the decades stand out, either because of who gave them, how they gave them, or simply where they stood in history. Let’s hit a few highlights.
In one of the funniest commencement speeches ever delivered, every other sentence of Conan’s, unsurprisingly, is a laugh line. “Today you have achieved something special," he told graduates, “something only 92 percent of Americans your age will ever know: a college diploma. That’s right, with your college diploma you will have a crushing advantage over eight percent of the workforce." Later, he said, “Though some of you may see me as a celebrity, you should know that I once sat where you sit. Literally. Late last night I snuck out here and sat in every seat. I did it to prove a point—I am not bright and have a lot of free time."
Of course, Conan is actually bright, and quite wise. He advised graduates that “adult acne lasts longer than you think" and also to “work hard, be kind, and amazing things will happen." At least one of those things is true.
A Ronald Reagan commencement speech would have been much more polarizing, and much more expensive, in 1987 than in 1957. But back in the golden fifties, Reagan was about as ideologically controversial at Tom Hanks. This address was in fact, one of Reagan’s first public speeches. It set the stage for “Morning In America" more than two decades later.
“This is a land of destiny," he said, “and our forefathers found their way here by some Divine system of selective service gathered here to fulfill a mission to advance man a further step in his climb from the swamps." He added, “There are many well-meaning people today who work at placing an economic floor beneath us so that no one shall exist beneath a certain level or standard of living."
It’s hard to say how popular that sentiment would be today, but it won him two massive landslide Presidential victories.
All commencement speakers are admirably accomplished, but not everyone overcomes the same odds to achieve their dreams. “I surmounted several medium-sized obstacles to create The West Wing" isn’t exactly Rosa Parks-level sacrifice. But Catt, the driving force behind the 19th Amendment, achieved true social change in her lifetime, the subject of her substantive 1936 address.
Full of outrageous examples of how oppressed women had been throughout American history, her speech is full of anger and hope. Talking about the previous 100 years, “The Woman’s Century," she says, “The Century opened with the first school for higher learning for girls. It closed with the declaration of the Secretary of State that all women were enfranchised." On behalf of all women, Catt bequeaths that legacy to the graduates of that long-ago women’s college, whose great-grandchildren carry on their work today.
At the height of Nixon-era cynicism, Vonnegut delivered this skeptical address when he was 51, pretty much the peak of his career. He opened with the memorable quip: When I was a boy, all a commencement speaker had to say was, “Go out and kill Hitler, boy. And then get married and have a lot of kids." Today’s world, Vonnegut said, was much more morally complicated. He calls for a new religion and says that “our grandchildren will surely remember us as Planet Gobblers." And yet he manages to come around to this conclusion: “I am astonished to find myself an optimist now. I feel now that I have been underestimating the intelligence and resourcefulness of man."
The legendary sci-fi author broke new ground in the well-worn commencement address genre by delivering an astonishing lecture about failure.
“Success is somebody else’s failure," she said. ‘Success is the American Dream and we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it." She informed graduates that they would find themselves soon in a “dark place, alone and afraid," causing thousands of parents to immediately ask the college for a refund. But then she also encouraged the women of Mills to build their own, new society, so they could redefine their success on their own terms, not those of the patriarchy. Even today, when such ideas are commonly expressed on Twitter, this stands out as stark, honest, and brutal.
More than a decade before publishing “Oh The Places You’ll Go," Theodor Geisel read to graduates an original poem called “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers." It went:
As you partake of the world’s bill of fare, That’s darned good advice to follow. Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow.
Many people love Ferrell’s 2003 Harvard speech, where he did his George W. Bush impression and sang, to the tune of “Dust In The Wind,": “Don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the Harvard alumni endowment fund." But I prefer his USC address, delivered to his alma mater with heart and conviction and topped by an incredibly hilarious rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You." Now that’s a graduation to remember.
Ferrell also included this joke, my favorite from any commencement address: “As a freshman in the fall of 1986, if you were to come up to me and say that in the year 2017 you, Will Ferrell, will be delivering the commencement address for USC, I would have hugged you with tears in my eyes. I then would have asked this person from the future, ‘Does that mean I graduated?’"
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