Over the past few months, in preparation for and in reflection of the commencement address I had the privilege of giving at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University on May 12, I watched scores of them on YouTube and read literally hundreds of them as well as their reviews.
A few days after my speech, I came upon a piece by actor, director, producer James Franco on the subject of commencement addresses with particular interest.
Having just delivered a commencement address, Mr. Franco shared a few takeaways: "Commencement speeches suck," they are "easily forgotten," and at least in his case, crafting one requires the assistance of the likes of Seth Rogen. Mr. Rogen wasn't available to help me with mine, though thankfully other folks, including my friend Mark Durham, were. There's no shame in getting help — on this Mr. Franco and I agree.
I admire Mr. Franco for his academic prowess as well as his obvious and prodigious talent (hosting the Academy Awards not withstanding), I don't think he is entirely right about commencement speeches. They don't all suck; not all of the speakers are famous; and I can personally attest to the fact that they are not all forgotten.
When I graduated Stanford University in 1971 (am I really that old?), Eric Sevareid, one of the most literate and respected journalists of his time, was the commencement speaker. His speech was eloquent, indeed poetic. I remember it to this day some 40 years later, parts of it verbatim. I remember it because it inspired me, it challenged me, and it made me realize that what we did mattered. It wasn't just about where I was going — it was about where we were all going.
I know many expect commencement speeches to be little more than a good-natured roast with some platitudes about life being an open book, but I for one think the times demand more. These students are graduating with an unparalleled amount of debt into an anemic economy and job market (For more on that, read my recent columns on the subject. [Related Articles: It's Time To Solve the Student Loan Crisis and Crowdsourcing the Student Loan Mess]
So, what's it all for? The system by which we fund higher education in this country may be horribly broken, but that in no way means the people who are a product of it should be written off. They have a vital role to play both in the reform of that system and steering the direction of our country in general. It's important that these graduates feel empowered to effect these changes. If they don't — if they're all too cynical and feel there's no use in trying — then we're in big trouble.
In my speech at Rutgers (which I've included below) I tried to accomplish what Sevareid did. I focused on the relentless assault on enlightenment and adulthood at a moment in time when our nation seems to need so much of both. I took the speech very seriously.
I'm not particularly famous, but I hope that what I said about those subjects resonated with my listeners the way his speech resonated with me — in times that were turbulent, threatening and dark, just like now.
As Plato noted long ago when enlightenment was itself a new idea: "We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when adults are afraid of the light."