Commencement Speeches: The Good, the Bad, the Boring (So Far)

Last Updated May 13, 2011 3:20 PM EDT

Spring is in the air, which means flowers are blooming, evenings are lengthening and, of course, all across the country bigwigs are polishing up their commencement speeches to arm newly minted graduates with essential wisdom for life. Some such speeches are classics -- Steve Jobs' at Stanford in 2005 is still being discussed today and writer David Foster Wallace's at Kenyon merits newspaper reprints -- but surrounding this sprinkling of gems is a great sea of bland pablum.

So this year, who wowed and who bombed? Not all the speeches have been made yet (Al Gore speaks at Hamilton on the 22nd, while Stephen Colbert is set to sure to provide laughs to his alma mater, Northwestern University, on June 17th) but this weekend did give us a range of what to expect from the coming weeks.

  • President Obama at Miami Dade College: Forget career advice or uplifting predictions, Obama was all about business in Miami, reasserting his administration's support for community colleges and using his personal history to press for the DREAM Act, which would allow illegal immigrants who were bought to the U.S. as children to remain here legally provided they attend higher education or serve in the military. Appropriate to the occasion? Inspiring? Your answer probably depends on your party affiliation.
  • Former president Bill Clinton at University of Central Missouri: The killing of Osama bin Laden might not having any obvious bearing on the journey college graduates are about to begin through adult life, but it was such a momentous occasion dignitaries just couldn't help bringing it up. Apart from America's efforts in the war on terror, Clinton also outlined the three biggest challenges he says the world is facing: instability, inequality, and global warming. Weighty problems all (and hardly uncontroversial), so the grads must have been left feeling they have their work cut out for them. At least they have each other to lean on, with Clinton bluntly asserting: "If you don't think we are all in this together, we are toast," Want to hear more? He'll also speak at NYU commencement on the 18th.
  • First Lady Michelle Obama at University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls: Like the ex-pres, the first lady took the opportunity of her commencement speech to praise the raid that killed bin Laden, using the soldiers who carried it out as an example of the rewards of a life of service. Being a highly trained, death-dealing warrior may not be the service-oriented career path of choice for many in the audience, but given the national mood it was certainly a timely way to make the point.
  • Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China and possible Republican presidential candidate at the University of South Carolina. Huntsman praised patriotism -- and by implication himself -- when he told students to put aside partisanship and focus on service (just like he did when he took his ambassador post at the behest of a Democratic president). A twinge of self-promotion there but a pleasant message nonetheless.
  • Bill Cosby at Hampton University. Cosby apparently went for more of a down-home, grumpy uncle vibe in his speech, handing out nuggets of wisdom from 'eat less salt' to 'teach your kids to be polite' and 'help tornado victims.' Earth shattering? No, but at least it was humorous.
  • Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak at Michigan State University. Wozniak takes the award for most out-of-left-field speech content so far. Forget service, he wants graduates to beware of robots. "The cyborgs are winning!" he declared.
What general trends can we deduce? Politicians can't resist politicking, no matter the context, and that service is very much in style. Was it ever out of fashion? Perhaps not, but all these exhortations to focus on your fellow man do seem to suggest some anxiety that today's graduates may lack something in the altruism department.

What's the best, or worst, commencement speech you ever heard?

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user sakeeb, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.