That Lame Commencement Address
On the cliches, Pollyanna-isms, platitudes, bromides, and cotton-headed nonsense masquerading as insight in the idea-starved, creativity-deprived world of graduation talks
A Note: Instead of my usual writing tips this week, I'm sending along this, appropriate for the season. It's an essay I wrote a few years ago on the graduation speech, a form distinguished only by the variety of ways people find to do it poorly.
To say that commencement talks are clichéd is to engage in cliché. It is as profound an understatement as "Mr. Long enjoyed the buffet."
The feculent odor of the commencement talk -- if you can stay awake to smell it -- is so undeniable that chemists may one day add it to the Periodic Table of the Elements; it is as certain in spring as allergies, Ivy League rejection letters, and the discovery that a repair to your car's air conditioner will be priced somewhere north of extortion. The sanguine setups and panacean payoffs of the springtime address come as naturally to a flattered influencer as rabid animosity to a DMV clerk, and in a vocabulary as finite, cramped, and predictable as a linguist might collect from a schoolyard after the announcement of full-time summer school.
Show me a commencement address containing an original idea. Can’t be done. These vapid, molasses-speed speeches are so limited in scope and narrow in style that the canon may be completely categorized:
- The Story Without A Point
- The Exhortation To Do Something Important That Never Gets Named
- Nonsense Lifted from a TED Talk the Guy Sorta Listened To
- The Lesson About Hard Work From Someone Who Hasn't Had to Work Hard Since the Clinton Administration
- Calls to Change the World in Ways That Could Be Achieved Only by Lobotomy, Fascism, or the Two Combined
- The “We Stand On The Shoulders Of Giants” Routine
- Stuff I Wrote Down Last Night in the Hotel
- Platitudes, Bunches of 'em
- The Straight-Faced Delusion That Everyone Here Is Going to Do Great Things
- Political Self-Righteousness Delivered for the Speaker, Not the Audience
- An Optimistic Portrait of the Future Overstated by a Rich Guy Who Will Be Fine No Matter What
- Meandering Extemporization Tolerated Because He’s a Major Donor, Friends with the President of the University, or Both
- Rambling Improv From a Famous Guy Who Imagines That’s Enough to Make Him Interesting
- The Authoritarian Impulse Presented As Caring
- Ninety Seconds of Useful Stuff Stretched Out for a Half Hour
- Metaphor That Goes Nowhere, and Takes Most of an Hour to Do It
- Sanctimony: Hell, Yeah!
- Stuff Cribbed From One Of Those Essays on a Chipotle Cup
- Youthful Tech Start-Up Guy Who Didn’t Need College in the First Place and Wants You to Know It
- The Thing That Happened to Me in an Exotic-Sounding Foreign Place Whose Importance to This Occasion I Will Never Make Quite Clear
- Something About a Crossroads
As filling as a cracker; as memorable as a sneeze. Death to the commencement address.
Then there are the speaker types, from the senior-citizen-as-novelty-because-the-audience-is-young to the 20-something millionaire who thinks flip-flops on the dais make him cool. Not to mention the professionally lateral friends of those on the selection committee -- hey, it's a free trip and a check! Also illiterate athletes and celebrity stunt-casting. That’s about it.
As filling as a cracker; as memorable as a sneeze. Death to the commencement address. Let’s start hiring DJs.
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