Reflections on Graduation Speeches

As a parent to five kids I’ve seen — enjoyed and endured — more graduation speeches, I suspect, than most people. Actually, not counting my own, or my siblings’, that’s five high school graduations and four college graduations, and still counting.

The most memorable of those was the 1994 class of South Eugene High School, here in Eugene Oregon, for which the speaker was Ken Kesey, author of Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who read from an unpublished short story.

The graduation speech is an interesting moment. To some, it’s a chance to be heard, a moment of a lifetime. Some of these speeches — for example, Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005 — are so good that they get major play on the Web for a while (although it’s frustrating, because they seem to get taken off from YouTube, leaving just the spot where they once were. The Steve Jobs video is linked from lots of places, but ends up in a dead end, although you can click here for the text transcript).

To the graduating students, however, graduation speeches are … well, is this a useful avenue for further discussion? After all, they’re young, they’ve already started partying, it’s hot, they have to sit still, and they’re (repetition is on purpose) young.

I also heard then-President Bill Clinton speak at the 1996 Princeton graduation, Condoleezza Rice at the 1995 Notre Dame graduation, and Dustin Hoffman at the 2005 Tisch School of Arts at NYU graduation.

Dustin Hoffman took a very engaging trip through his memories of a career in acting, a great speech for students at Tisch, which is known for its production of actors, musicians, and dancers. At one point he talked about he and two guys named Gene and Bob shared a very low rent apartment in the Alphabet City area of lower Manhattan, an extremely tough neighborhood at the time, struggling with menial jobs while trying to get acting parts. He told the story well, leaving out, to use as a punch line, that Gene and Bob were Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. So that one cheap apartment in New York produced how many Academy Award winners?

President Clinton introduced a new program for helping families pay for education at the Princeton graduation. The most interesting part of that speech was the five minutes he did in Latin. It included jokes in Latin. And, amazingly, students laughed at the jokes in Latin. I learned later that the classics department had prepped the students ahead of time, so the laughs were planned.

Yesterday, Sunday, browsing the Web, I discovered the graduation speech I wish I’d heard, titled Hindsights, which Guy Kawasaki has delivered three times to Palo Alto High School, and a few times in other places. He put it on his blog so you and I can read it. And it’s June, so the time is right.

Just to give you an idea, it’s based on a top 10 list and starts with the following as number 10:

#10: Live off your parents as long as possible.

I was a diligent Oriental in high school and college. I took college-level classes and earned college-level credits. I rushed through college in 3 1/2 years. I never traveled or took time off because I thought it wouldn’t prepare me for work and it would delay my graduation.

Frankly, I blew it.

That’s all I’m going to quote here. I suggest you follow the link, and read that speech.

How to Change the World: Hindsights


  • Todd James says:

    Yes this reminds me of days past. Times were different then.. the war… the movement… I can almost smell the rebellion pulsating from the massive crowd awaiting future turmoil. I do recall a southern bell who caught my eye in the far distance. At that moment I thought…… Was this what stanford was all about? Meeting my southern bell??? I think so.

    THAnnks Tim AWESOME blog post

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