May 14, 2010 -- As graduation day approaches, dozens of actors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, comedians and political figures will provide words of inspiration to colleges across the country in a time-honored tradition in higher education: The Commencement Speech.
At their worst, commencement speeches serve as the forgettable prelude to the distribution of diplomas. "A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that 'individuality' is the key to success," comedian Richard Orben once joked.
Still, commencement speeches can offer students hope for the future and help put their four years of hard work into a broader context. Countless graduation speakers have used the platform to deliver words that continue to resonate and inspire. Here are 10 memorable moments in commencement speech history.
1. Steve Jobs, Stanford University: Apple CEO Steve Jobs told three stories during his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University -- about finding a career path, love and loss, and death. After mentioning his 2004 cancer diagnosis, Jobs reminded the graduates that their time on Earth is limited, and they should make the most of it.
"Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
2. Jon Stewart, William & Mary: "I am honored to be here and to receive this honorary doctorate," Jon Stewart said to the 2004 class of William & Mary, his alma mater. "When I think back to the people that have been in this position before me, from Benjamin Franklin to Queen Noor of Jordan, I can't help but wonder what has happened to this place. Seriously, it saddens me. As a person, I am honored to get it; as an alumnus, I have to say I believe we can do better."
Jokes aside, Stewart told the students to understand that there are many ways to live a successful life. Stewart said the graduates should not burden themselves with worries about the right path to success. Instead, he said the students should "love what you do. Get good at it ... and let the chips fall where they may."
3. Will Ferrell, Harvard University: Some commencement speakers are inspirational. Others use the platform to express a political point of view or lobby for social change. Comedian Will Ferrell's 2003 Class Day address at Harvard did neither. In the speech, the former Saturday Night Live comedian impersonated George W. Bush and finished off his speech by singing the 1970s soft rock ballad "Dust in the Wind." Even though he didn't graduate from Harvard, Ferrell said he still had some college experience.
"I'm not one of you. O.K.? I can't relate to who you are and what you've been through. I graduated from the University of Life. All right? I received a degree from the School of Hard Knocks. And our colors were black and blue, baby. I had office hours with the Dean of Bloody Noses. All right? I borrowed my class notes from Professor Knuckle Sandwich and his Teaching Assistant, Ms. Fat Lip Thon Nyun. That's the kind of school I went to for real, O.K.?"
4. Alan Alda, Connecticut College: Actor Alan Alda's 1980 address at Connecticut College was actually an intimate letter to his daughter Eve, a member of the school's graduating class. In his letter the "Mash" actor told his daughter, and the rest of the graduates, that it was O.K. to be nervous about the future.
"If you feel a little off balance, it's understandable. Adulthood has come upon you suddenly and you're not all that sure you're ready for it. I think that sometimes I'm not ready for adulthood either, yours or mine.
5. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College: The novelist and essayist's address to the graduates was inspirational at the time he delivered it, in 2005, but it took on an added poignancy after Wallace committed suicide three years later. "The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head," Wallace told the Kenyon College (Ohio) graduating class.
Wallace asked the graduates to look beyond themselves and challenge their own certainties and ways of thinking. Wallace's speech centered around what he said is the common cliché of liberal arts education: That it "teaches you how to think." He added that the real value of a college education was not knowledge but awareness.
"The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too."
6. John F. Kennedy, American University: Heeding the threat of a total nuclear war, President John F. Kennedy's June 10, 1963, commencement address at American University lobbied for people around the world to understand the importance of world peace and the dangers of nuclear weapons. In a speech that became famous, Kennedy announced that the U.S. was reopening negotiations with the Soviet Union to end testing of nuclear weapons. Two months later, representatives from the U.S., Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, agreeing to ban testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in space and underwater.
"So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."
7. Toni Morrison, Wellesley College: Nobel Prize author Toni Morrison talked to the 2004 class of Wellesley College, in Massachusetts, about the beauty of adulthood, about happiness and about generational conformity. She stressed to the graduates of the women's college that they had the power to break away from the failures and expectations of her generation and create their own paths.
"You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don't have complete control over the narrative -- no author does, I can tell you -- you could nevertheless create it."
8. George C. Marshall, Harvard University: Former U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall outlined the program for economic recovery in post-World War II Europe during his famous June 5,1947, commencement address at Harvard University. The speech signaled America's commitment to rebuilding war-torn Europe and has since become known as the Marshall Plan Speech.
"And yet the whole world of the future hangs on a proper judgment. It hangs, I think, to a large extent on the realization of the American people, of just what are the various dominant factors. What are the reactions of the people? What are the justifications of those reactions? What are the sufferings? What is needed? What can best be done? What must be done?"
9. Kermit the Frog, Long Island University: Wearing a cap and gown, Kermit the Frog received an honorary doctorate and gave the 1996 commencement speech at Long Island University's Southampton College. The green frog asked the graduating class to protect his amphibious friends and preserve the beauty of the environment.
"And so I say to you, the 1996 graduates of Southampton Graduate Campus, you are no longer tadpoles. The time has come for you to drop your tails and leave this swamp. But I am sure that wherever I go as I travel around the world, I will find each and every one of you working your tails off to save other swamps and give those of us who live there a chance to survive. We love you for it."
10. Theodor Geisel, Lake Forest College: In 1977, Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, received an honorary degree as a Doctor of Humane Letters from Lake Forest College in Chicago. After receiving the degree, Seuss surprised the commencement crowd with an original poem, "My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers."
"My uncle ordered popovers from the restaurant's bill of fare. And, when they were served, he regarded them with a penetrating stare...
"Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom as he sat there on that chair: "To eat these things," said my uncle, "you must exercise great care. You may swallow down what's solid... But ... you must spit out the air!"
"And as you partake of the world's bill of fare, that's darned good advice to follow. Do a lot of spitting out the hot air. And be careful what you swallow."