What makes for a good commencement speech?


Commencement addresses have been caught up in protest culture, engulfing activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

But amid the debate about speakers, rather than the speeches they might have delivered, I wonder whether the purpose of these addresses is clear. Are they supposed to be a font of life advice? A final lecture? An assertion of the value of free speech?

Celebrating graduates’ accomplishments while preparing them for the challenges ahead, making parents feel good about their investment and getting some challenging ideas into the mix while avoiding platitudes and self-aggrandizement is a genuinely difficult task.

John McCain’s 2006 commencement address at Columbia University was a drag not so much for his lengthy defense of U.S. involvement in Iraq but for the section of the speech in which McCain told the whippersnappers to listen to their elders. Saying “When I was a young man, I was quite infatuated with self-expression, and rightly so because, if memory conveniently serves, I was so much more eloquent, well-informed and wiser than anyone else I knew” is not going to provoke any powerful moments of self-recognition. It sounds cranky and self-interested.

One of the best commencement addresses in recent memory was J.K. Rowling’s at Harvard in 2008 — memorable for the way it touched on two themes: her own experiences of profound failure and poverty; and the importance of imagination, moral and fictional.

“Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally,” Rowling said. “Choosing to live in narrow spaces leads to a form of mental agoraphobia, and that brings its own terrors. I think the willfully unimaginative . . . are often more afraid.”

That was a sharp point in a speech full of them. What made the address so good was not that Rowling was famous or beloved. Rather, it was that she crafted a speech in service of the students, praising their accomplishments and spurring them onward. When soon-to-be graduates think about what they want in a speaker, they would do well to add that sort of thoughtful attention to their lists. That way, they might actually get an address that is as memorable as the hullabaloo that preceded it.

Alyssa Rosenberg writes on culture and politics at washingtonpost.com/news/act-four

© 2014, The Washington Post

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • Why Obama shouldn’t go to Ferguson

    On Monday, ABC’s Ann Compton asked President Barack Obama whether he would visit Ferguson, Missouri, amid the continued unrest. Obama didn’t give a firm answer, but he did suggest it’s probably not a good idea.

  • I’m a cop. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge me.

    A teen-ager is fatally shot by a police officer; the police are accused of being bloodthirsty, trigger-happy murderers; riots erupt. This, we are led to believe, is the way of things in America.

  • We’re spending too much on raising kids

    The Department of Agriculture has released its annual report on the cost of raising children, and the upshot is what you probably already know: It’s expensive.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category