The Last Word: History Making Commencement Speeches

College Graduation.

Some students tempted to just scrap the whole thing and hit the ground running without so much as a glance back at their tiny hometown college.

Others relish in the moment.

The moment that puts a formal punctuation mark on the crazy four years (or ten years, depending on how much you crazy you get) we call the university experience. Commencement speeches are often riddled with cliche upon cliche. “You are the future,” or “Seize the day,” or silly little phrases like “You can change the world.”   We hear these prosaic declarations, the rolling of eyes ensues and we think, “Oh yeah, i’m sure changing the world will just fall into my lap during the hours of nine-to-five in my corporate job.”

Sometimes though when we give our  brothers cynicism and better judgment the cold shoulder and alllow ourselves to enjoy and believe in those dramatic, romantic notions you will be inspired. Yes, inspired. Not “motivational-workplace-poster” inspired, but the real thing.  For just an instant, allow yourself to believe in all those dramatic, romantic notions.

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Commencement Speeches

America’s Best College Graduation Speeches

Anna Quindlen

“It is fear that always tamps down our authentic selves, that turns us into some patchwork collection of affectations and expectations, mores and mannerisms, some treadmill set to the prevailing speed of universal acceptability that causes a tyranny of homogeny, whether it’s the homogeny of the straight world of the suits or the spiky world of the avant-garde.”

Elie Wiesel

“Granted, the world you inherited is far from being safe and peaceful. But it is your task, and maybe mine still, to improve it. Remember: one person’s courageous humanist initiative or moral commitment can make a difference and it has. Always one person saved, one person or one family in those dark times and they remain my idols. For even then, those who did so restored the honor of the human race and of humanity. Of  all Albert Camus’s sayings I prefer the one which comes at the dénouement of his novel The Plague: When everything is done. After all is said and done, said Camus, there is more in man, which means in human being, to celebrate than to denigrate.”

Ali G

“First of all, I iz got to say I iz a bit nervous speakin to so many of you – at least me would be if I weren’t totally mashed. Normally de only public-speaking I does is to 12 people – and it’s well easy all me has to say iz me name and de words ‘not guilty’.”

Laura Bush

“I could not recall who gave the commencement address for my Master’s Degree. That’s because I skipped the ceremony. But I did look it up, and you can imagine my surprise when I discovered it was some guy named George Bush. Four years after that speech, I married his son.”

Rudy Giuliani

“In America, the heroic example of past generations are carried on and built upon by the next generation. When I saw those firefighters, I saw in their eyes, and I saw in their action the same thing that their fathers would have done or their grandfathers would have done in the same situation, and they did the same thing. In the face of being attacked, in the face of having their lives in jeopardy, in the face of watching their brothers and comrades die in front of them, what they said was, we don’t retreat. We don’t put our heads down. We don’t back up. We stand for something bigger than us. We stand for democracy. We stand for liberty. We stand for freedom. We stand for peace. And we’re going to put up our flag, and hold it there, and it is going to prevail, and it is going to wave as a symbol of freedom and democracy for us. And we don’t want to impose it on anyone else. We want to give it to them. Share it with them as a gift that isn’t ours alone, but a gift that comes from God.”

Will Ferrell

“I probably shouldn’t use the word ain’t during this day in which we celebrate education, but that’s just the way I play it, holmes.”

Conan O Brien

“I’d like to thank the Class Marshals for inviting me here today. The last time I was invited to Harvard it cost me $110,000, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit suspicious.”

Jon Stewart

“I congratulate the students for being able to walk even a half a mile in this non-breathable fabric in the Williamsburg heat.”

David Foster Wallace

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

Eileen Myles

“[Birth is] just a great act, that great act makes all the other ones possible, it’s an act of allowing, of not destroying, of giving, letting life pass through, and I thought I should bring this to you, what a frightening thought, a woman’s body being the archway to the future, and as we stand here, and some of you will be giving birth, or being there, and holding her, and some of you have already done this, and here are your kids, they sit in their seats today, graduating from college. This is greatness, to pass through and know, to know that it’s happening to you, to be awake at the moment of birth.”

Stephen Colbert

“This seems like a very nice place. They have a lovely Web site. Besides, have you seen the world outside lately? They are playing for KEEPS out there, folks. My God, I couldn’t wait to get here today just so I could take a breather from the real world.”

The Creme de la Creme of all Commencement Speeches:

Steve Jobs

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life…I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life

And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

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