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May 18, 2012 11:00 AM Graduation Speakers Fail

By Daniel Luzer

JamesFranco

It’s really odd how the James Franco just keeps showing up in higher education discussions (my bet, 25 years from now he’s going to be the president of USC or something; real academics will probably continue to ridicule him) but while the handsome actor’s intellectual dilettantism is often maddeningly lightweight, he’s sometimes really right about some of academia’s bullshit.

According to the star himself (in a piece he wrote in the Huffington Post):

Commencement speeches suck. To set the scene: About four years ago, I was asked to give the commencement speech at U.C.L.A. in front of all the members of the graduating class and their families. In all, it’s more than 10,000 people, enough to fill the stands and the floor of Pauley Pavilion. Because I had only just earned my B.A. from U.C.L.A. — I had returned when I was in my late 20s to finish my English degree — some of the students felt that I hadn’t accomplished enough to inspire them. They created a Facebook group, which attracted about 220 members from a class of 6,000 — enough to earn them some local news coverage and an invitation for the creator of the page to speak on NPR. I’m sure it must have seemed odd that someone who had been in their classes the previous year was asked to give the speech, but I couldn’t help noticing that not one of the protesters had bothered to sign up for the selection committee that actually chooses the commencement speaker each year. My guess is that they didn’t really care who gave their commencement speech; they were just taking advantage of the opportunity to blow off some steam. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no one remembers their commencement speaker’s speech.

He’s right. Part of the trouble is that we haven’t quite figured out what the commencement speech is supposed to be about. While college graduation speeches take place in a serious academic setting, they’re not themselves actually a matter of serious intellectual concern. But it can seem a little inappropriate to crack jokes throughout the whole thing, show up in a clown costume, or tell graduates that finishing college is actually not a big deal. Speakers worry the ghosts of Yale dons of the past will haunt them for their desecration of the institution (or maybe that they just won’t be asked to give another lucrative little speech at some school next year).

And so they often end up saying nothing. The guest speaker gets paid $30,000 to talk about all the wonderful things life has in store for the graduates, how they should always remember their roots, and how they’ll overcome, with aplomb, all the struggles an early professional career will thrust upon them.

Snore. I’m amazed more of them just don’t recycle their speeches from stuff they found on the internet. It’s hardly worth trying that hard. The only memorable commencement speeches, in fact, are those that don’t have much do to with college graduation.

Perhaps the most significant in recent history was that delivered by Secretary of State George Marshall, when he gave the address to the 1945 Harvard graduating class. Dispensing with the usual “follow your dreams” blather, he used the occasion to announce his plan to use American aid to promote recovery and reconstruction in Europe and Japan.

But not every guest speaker, of course, has a Marshall plan in mind. Sometimes it’s best just to stick to what you know. Franco again:

I once asked Tina Fey if she ever gave commencement speeches, and she said she only speaks at high schools — there’s too much pressure at the college level. And when UT Arlington invited me to speak, I had a ton of reservations. Mainly, I didn’t want to give a thankless speech to a bunch of ungrateful people who would criticize me and then forget the speech anyway. Commencement speeches are the worst kind of speech, because you need to be enthusiastic and inspiring in your own voice. There is nothing cheesier than that. No wonder Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen gave their Harvard speeches in character. Liberated from the burden of being Tony Robbins, they were free to simply entertain.

And why not? The kids’ grandparents flew in for this day. At least give everyone a good show. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • Phalamir on May 18, 2012 8:53 PM:

    I have come to the conclusion that they need to ditch the commencement speech as a speech and invite someone to come and give a 15-20 minute presentation on whatever their current project is. Get an astronomer to do a short spiel on Kuiper Belt objects, or an architect on their new building, or an artist on their work. Nothing too in-depth or too arcane, but let graduates see the sorts of things they will be working on after college