So says Casey N. Cep:
No graduation is complete, it seems, without a speech somewhere between sagacious and slapstick. But it was only the in the 19th century that such special orations became popular. Harvard didn’t invite its first outside commencement speaker until 1831, when the theologian Richard Whately spoke. The University of Michigan did away with student speeches entirely in 1878, instead inviting the Honorable George V.N. Lothrop to deliver “A Plea for Education As a Public Duty.” In the decades since, schools around the country have turned commencement into a competition for the most accomplished or at least celebrated speaker.
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These speeches are by definition mostly affirming, only a little moralizing, and always 30 minutes or less. The commencement address had its heyday, of course; for a few years, figures of political importance used the occasion to announce major policy initiatives: Secretary of State George Marshall unveiling the Marshall Plan at Harvard in 1947, President John F. Kennedy calling for a nuclear test ban treaty at American University in 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson introducing the Great Society in 1964 at the University of Michigan.
But those days have passed, and the commencement speeches most beloved now are the secular sermons, designed not to challenge or change, but only to sooth and entertain. Even last year’s celebrated speech at Syracuse University by the writer George Saunders, a speech that I loved and have returned to several times, could easily be mistaken for a few pages of Chicken Soup for the Graduating Soul. “Down through the ages,” Saunders’s speech begins, “a tradition form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him … gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them.”
Yes, let’s get rid of the invited speaker who costs $100,000, but let’s keep an address, either by a student or a faculty member. Graduation wouldn’t be graduation if attendees didn’t have to suffer a bit. And who knows, a faculty or student speaker doesn’t have a public speaking gig to protect and just might–might–say something interesting.