Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Five Commencement Speech Ideas

A friend of mine is giving a commencement speech this weekend. She's a fine writer, but "commencement speech" is a pretty broad canvas, and you don't get a lot of direction to channel your creativity. So here are some starting points, for her and all those commencement speakers sweating out a last-minute address:
  • "In my end is my beginning." (from T.S. Eliot's The Four Quartets) The metaphor of education as a "journey" is so hackneyed it will have audiences asleep in no time. But you might be able to recover the metaphor if you approach it as T.S. Eliot did: "And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time." We aren't trying to get somewhere, so much as we're trying to find out who we really are.
  • "Summa Cum Laude." As I discussed in a previous post, many students have performed well in school, striving to get the grades and the praise of their parents and teachers, but have yet to come to terms with the inherent ambiguity in life. No one will be handing out grades any more . . . are you ready to deal with that?
  • "Don't Be Evil." The Google corporate motto captures a popular reaction to an increasingly ambitious, achievement-oriented society. School teaches us how to do things; it doesn't necessarily teach us what things are really worth doing. Graduates move into a world with an ethical dimension in everything; they have to figure out what's worth doing. If they don't, the run the risk of chasing more achievements for achievements' sake, possibly at the expense of real goodness.
  • "Things You're Not Supposed to Say at Commencement." If you're feeling really bold, you can try to tackle all the difficult topics that are usually taboo at commencement. Are you prepared to be a good parent? Will you sacrifice your family for the sake of your career? Are you prepared to start a completely different career within five years? If graduating from Duke is such a big accomplishment, why do I still feel confused, scared, and unfulfilled? (I don't think you want to pummel people with too many hard, unpleasant questions on a day of celebration, but it might build some credibility and interest if you actually ask questions the graduates are actually asking themselves.)
  • "Gratitude." Rather than slathering on advice that will most likely be forgotten after five minutes anyway, it might be better to lead the students into an experience. The most important emotion to feel at this moment is not pride, or excitement, or ambition, but gratitude. You could spend twenty minutes merely recounting everything that had to happen for you to be standing here at this minute, starting with the Big Bang and the origin of life, up to your own parents sacrifices and your own, and all the aspects of our free society that made it possible. Just stop and say, "(wow)."



Blogger Joanna said...

Thank you so much. These are great ideas. I especially like Summa Cum Laude. Have you ever seen the movie "With Honors?" It is wonderful, and I am always tremendously moved by the end where Joe Pesco tells the main character, Monty, that he will graduate from life with honor and without regret. It beautiful.

I was also thinking of using that quote from Augie's refrigerator: "Man is a mystery. If you spend your whole life trying to puzzle him out, do you not say that you have wasted your time. I concern myself with this mystery because I want to be a man."

And in line with the gratitude idea, I am thinking of ending on that, with the Einstin quote that our lives are so much derived from others.

Georg, thank you so very much for putting your time, thoughts and good ideas to this for me. I appreciate it very much. I am also excited to finally know where your blog is. Can't wait to read more of it.


10:47 AM  
Blogger The Thin Man said...


You're most welcome. I like playing the Cyrano. ;-}

10:51 AM  

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