When selecting the right person to deliver a dazzling commencement address, it’s probably not a bad idea to find someone who’s made a career of auditory storytelling. That was the route that Baltimore’s Goucher College took, inviting public-radio icon Ira Glass to address the class of 2012. Glass made it exceedingly clear, however, that he “opposes on principle the idea of any commencement speech,” deeming it a “doomed form.” The very mission of the commencement speech, he said, “is in itself ridiculous: to inspire at a moment which needs no inspiration. Look at yourselves at this moment. Something incredible is happening to you right now. The whole world is opening to you.” But he had to finish bashing commencement speeches so he could hurry up and deliver one. The graduates might oppose graduation speeches too, but they certainly seemed to enjoy themselves when Glass disclosed that he’d lost his virginity in one of the college’s dorm rooms.
As far as grad speeches go, nowadays, much of the hype rests on the celebrity status of the speaker. How well known is the person blathering on about confronting life’s challenges head-on, or, you know, whatever grad speakers talk about? The more famous, the better. If commencement speeches were a competition, New York City’s Barnard College would probably win this year with its selection of charismatic orator — and leader of the free world — Barack Obama. Addressing the all-female graduating class, he wasted no time, delving right into issues surrounding the gender gap in the U.S. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, of course — in true commencement-speech tradition, there was still plenty of optimism and spirited encouragement to go around.
And in North Carolina, another famous politician, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, addressed the graduates of the University of North Carolina. However, he began with a slightly different approach — the old aim-to-develop-a-rapport-with-the-students-by-initiating-call-and-response-chants-based-on-campus-traditions. Because, hey, it’s just not a successful graduation speech if you don’t make everyone feel at least slightly uncomfortable. Perhaps most notable in Bloomberg’s speech was his decision to get political and defend gay marriage. He said North Carolina’s recent referendum to ban it “shows just how much more work needs to be done to ensure freedom and equality for all people.”
(LIST: Top 10 Commencement Speeches)
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed the graduates of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, admitting that 1) she doesn’t remember a single word of the speech delivered at her own graduation and 2) she lacked the confidence that the SMU grads would remember a word of her speech either. She continued to downplay her speech, assuring the graduates they’d leave SMU with memories more lasting than her remarks. But her sentiment was clear: the day was about the students and the education they’d received over the past four years. Your humility is admirable, Condi, but give yourself some credit.