This advice to MIT graduates, attributed to Kurt Vonnegut in an apocryphal speech he never gave, is what passes for great commencement oratory today. Gone are the days when commencement addresses were the occasion for sweeping policy pronouncements or memorable selections for Bartlett’s Quotations. Wary of offending wealthy alumni, a diverse student body, or their corporate overlords, most universities today settle for feel-good addresses full of banal bromides: the bland leading the blandishments.
A quick perusal of this commencement season’s speakers will confirm the trend. We have celebrity crowd-pleasers (Oprah Winfrey at Harvard, Terry Bradshaw at the New England Institute of Technology, the ubiquitous Bill Cosby, this year at the University of Colorado); business titans and likely donors (Carlos Slim at George Washington University, Shahid Khan at the University of Illinois); or inspirational image-burnishers (the Dalai Lama at Tulane). A more usual list of suspects would be hard to find.
Even the controversies have become drearily familiar. Catholic universities resist anyone who has ever whispered the word abortion. Students use their heckler’s veto to thwart the politically incorrect. You have to give the kids at UCLA credit for protesting the actor James Franco’s selection a few years back for insufficient gravitas. Too bad the students at Rutgers didn’t get the memo; they paid Snooki $32,000 to speak on campus in 2011 (Toni Morrison was the official commencement speaker).
It wasn’t always thus. In 1947 George Marshall used the occasion of the Harvard commencement to announce his Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe. Winston Churchill’s commencement address to the Harrow school in 1941 featured his immortal exhortation to war-weary Britons: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never. . .” In 1963 President Kennedy took on no less an issue than world peace in his commencement speech at American University. “Our problems are man-made; therefore, they can be solved by man,” he said. “No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”
Compare that to the grubby pragmatism that attends most commencement speeches by political figures today. President Obama’s address at the US Naval Academy last month had some big themes, but it also contained some everyday damage control over the IRS controversy. “As we have seen again in recent days, it only takes the misconduct of a few to further erode the people’s trust in their government,” he said. Everyone knew what he meant.
Then there’s the troublesome honorary degree, which doesn’t always wear well. Last year, Tufts University rescinded the doctorate of humane letters it had awarded to Lance Armstrong, after he was disgraced for using performance-enhancing drugs. Several schools, including the University of Massachusetts, revoked honorary degrees to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, once he devolved from freedom fighter to despotic thug. Central State University in Ohio gave new meaning to the term “getting bitten” when it awarded an honorary degree to Mike Tyson.
MIT has the right idea: The school has never awarded honorary degrees. Still, MIT can kowtow to rich and famous alumni too: Its speaker at next week’s graduation is Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox and 2005 graduate in computer science, estimated to be worth $400 million.
Commencement speeches are perhaps too easy to mock. When I graduated from Boston University (we got BU president John Silber as a speaker, as if we couldn’t get enough of him during the rest of the year), one of my friends ostentatiously played Cliché Bingo in the stands at Nickerson Field. The idea was to mark off a box every time the speaker uttered a preselected platitude: “These are the best years of your lives,’’ “Reach for the stars,” etc. In truth, Silber wasn’t a very good candidate for this game, as he was never given to coddling students with sunny aphorisms. But most commencement speakers can fill up your bingo card while they are still clearing their throats.
One of life’s great lessons is that we have something to gain from every encounter. Even Snooki may have some wisdom to impart, if only about avoiding reality TV. Besides, no matter how trivial, hackneyed, and mercenary the speech, it will be over quickly. So congratulations, graduates. Remember to follow your dreams. (Bingo!)
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the official 2011 commencement speaker at Rutgers. Author Toni Morrison delivered that speech; reality TV personality Snooki was the student-invited class day speaker.