You've got to feel for this year's crop of graduation speakers. What can you say, exactly, to inspire a couple thousand young adults leaving the safe shelter of academia with up to six figures of debt and unemployment figures of nearly 10 percent? A tough-love locker-room speech just isn't going to cut it.
According to The Wall Street Journal, a number of 2009's keynote speakers actually apologized to graduates on behalf of their entire generation. In his shockingly candid address, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told students that baby boomers had been "self-absorbed, self-indulgent and all too often just plain selfish." He counseled students "to live for others, not just yourselves. For fulfillment, not just pleasure and material gain. For tomorrow, and the Americans who will reside there, not just for today." New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennett offered similar thoughts.
As a recent grad-school graduate and a member of Generation Y (soon to be renamed, I fear, "Generation Why Bother?"), I have to admit some vengeful part of me enjoys this mass baby boomer mea culpa. But, as author and historian Neil Howe tells the WSJ, "You think about what an apology does, it allows you to maintain the moral high ground." Plus, if there ever were a moment to apply the cliché "too little, too late," this would be it.
Besides, the best graduation speeches -- such as the late David Foster Wallace's brilliant address to seniors at Kenyon College -- are the deeply personal ones that apply the speaker's own, hard-won wisdom to the struggles and triumphs that lie in their audience's future. That's why my favorite keynote of 2009 comes from Ellen DeGeneres. Addressing graduates of Tulane, in her hometown of New Orleans, DeGeneres says that she didn't go to college and, for a long time, "had no idea what I wanted to do with my life." She tells the horrific story of the day she passed the scene of a car crash, not realizing that her girlfriend had been killed in it. She recounts the controversy and cancellation that followed her coming out on national television. "And yet I was getting letters from kids that almost committed suicide but didn't because of what I did," she says. "I realized I had a purpose. And it wasn't just about me, and it wasn't about celebrity, but I felt like I was being punished."
After completing the poignant story of how she lost everything only to regain it on her own terms, DeGeneres tells the students that her definition of success has changed. Now, she tells them, she realizes that it isn't about money or fame but about integrity. Her final recommendation? "Don't give advice -- it'll come back and bite you in the ass."
Barbara Ehrenreich also delievered a great, no-bullshit speech this spring, in which she tells Berkeley journalism grads that they -- just like autoworkers and miners -- are now part of the working class. But rather than belabor that point, she tells the story of her own career:
I didn't start out to be a freelance writer or a journalist, but after a number of false starts and digressions, I discovered that's what I really loved doing. In about 1980, I was a single mother of two small children, and my work quota was four articles or columns a month. I did my research at the public library. I bought my clothes at Kmart or consignment stores. The kids did not get any special lessons or, when the time came, SAT prep courses.
After a brief diversion into $10-a-word territory at the end of the gog '90s, Ehrenreich confesses to the graduates that she is now working on a series of reported essays for a major newspaper, but at the rate of...
only one-quarter of what they had paid me for writing columns five years ago, barely enough to cover expenses. That bothered me. But then I had a kind of epiphany and realized: I've got to do this anyway. I'm on a mission, and I'll do whatever it takes.
Finally, Katie Couric, the woman who rose from the pink ghetto of "The Today Show" to become one of the most important voices of the 2008 election, gave a fantastic, proudly feminist speech to a crowd at Princeton. It's long (and worth reading in its entirety), but its resounding message was one of independence:
I'm sure you are all graduating with big career goals. You may also have a dream of being married and having a family, and at some point the career may take a backseat. There is no more challenging, rewarding or important job than being a mom. I just want to say this -- sometimes dreams of domestic bliss are interrupted by reality. People get divorced. People die. You need to protect yourself.