Ten Commencement Speakers You Wish You'd Had Ten Commencement Speakers You Wish You'd Had
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Ten Commencement Speakers You Wish You'd Had

by Liz Dwyer

May 16, 2011

Graduation is an exciting time, but let's face it: Commencement speeches aren't always memorable. A completely unscientific poll of the GOOD office revealed that almost none of us recall our college commencement speakers, or what they said to us (although we suspect it was something like, "You've worked hard! Yay!"). So here are 10 commencement speakers—and their inspiring, funny, and just plain on-point words of wisdom—that we wish we'd heard on graduation day.

4. Bono, University of Pennsylvania, 2004: U2's frontman struck the perfect balance between humor—he poked fun at annoying rock stars with causes and fans following him into bathrooms—and raising the call for this generation to end the spread of HIV and extreme poverty in Africa.

I'm not a hippie, I do not have flowers in my hair, I come from punk rock, The Clash wore army boots not Birkenstocks. I believe America can do this! I believe that this generation can do this. In fact I want to hear an argument about why we shouldn't.

I know idealism is not playing on the radio right now, you don't see it on TV, irony is on heavy rotation, the knowingness, the smirk, the tired joke. I've tried them all out but I'll tell you this, outside this campus—and even inside it—idealism is under siege beset by materialism, narcissism and all the other isms of indifference. Baggism, Shaggism. Raggism. Notism, graduationism, chismism, I don't know. Where's John Lennon when you need him?

8. Ursula K. Le Guin, Bryn Mawr College, 1986: Le Guin encouraged students to keep their  connection to the language of what's right instead of the male-dominated language of success taught in society:

Our schools and colleges, institutions of the patriarchy, generally teach us to listen to people in power, men or women speaking the father tongue; and so they teach us not to listen to the mother tongue, to what the powerless say, poor men, women, children: not to hear that as valid discourse.

I am trying to unlearn these lessons, along with other lessons I was taught by my society, particularly lessons concerning the minds, work, works, and being of women.

10. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005: Wallace gave one of the most beloved commencement speeches a mere three years before his tragic suicide. The speech refreshingly leaves the commencement address script and addresses the reality of life and our inner motivations:

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... 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.

photo (cc) via Flickr user Jason Bache

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Ten Commencement Speakers You Wish You'd Had