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Wise Words At Graduation

It’s graduation week at thousands of colleges and universities. The gowns and mortarboards will soon be returned to the rental companies in various states of dishevelment, and textbooks are going back to campus bookstores by the truckload. For more than a million new graduates, it’s over.

Well, not exactly over, but the fun part is over. The ceremony is called "commencement," because it signals the beginning of adulthood, financial responsibility, real work, and all the other horrors of grown up life. It's a scary time for the graduates, comparable to going over the top in the trench warfare of World War One, and facing enemy fire for the first time.

I remember nothing about my own graduation ceremony, but I do recall the enormous sense of relief afterwards. For me, as for many others, this turned out to be premature. Graduation is supposed to open up the world for you. But 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 led to 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 graduations, all of them un-memorable.  The speeches always seemed grand and meaningful at the time, but they never stood up to close examination. 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 billionaires 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 smart thing was said by Lee Iacocca: “Just think for yourselves.”

The most entertaining graduation speech I found in my research 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.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.