The Magazine

Advice to Graduates

Sleep through the commencement speech.

May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Today’s successful speaker, if he is to be relatable, will toss phrases like “men and women” and “ladies and gentlemen” to history’s compost. In my recent studies I may have found the transition point, the moment when “I commend these men and women” became “Hey, you guys.” Anna Quindlen, a former columnist for the New York Times, didn’t use that precise phrase in her commencement address, which is almost Kingsol-verian in its popularity. But she did perfectly embody the forced chumminess that speakers are expected to assume in front of the spoken-to, as well as the solipsism that underlies it.

“Begin with that most terrifying of all things, a clean slate,” she told Mount Holyoke’s class of ’99. “Then look, every day, at the choices you are making, and when you ask yourself why you are making them, find this answer: for me, for me!”

If you were a graduate today, and you were faced with the choice of listening to a public intellectual like Anna Quindlen or something else, you would do what today’s graduates try to do: choose something else. This is much to their credit. And so they choose TV stars. This is less to their credit, but after four years in the world’s finest system of higher education it’s what they know. Most lists of best commencement speeches include talks by the comedians Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Time, for its part, inexplicably included a speech by the actor who played that White House political adviser on West Wing. The balding, red-headed one. He told the class of 2006 at the University of Wisconsin to “be the active hero of your own life.” 

The comedians, meanwhile, deliver stand-up routines. They offer the graduates a polished and extremely pricey entertainment essentially for free—the cost of an honorary degree; nothing, in other words. Maybe it dawns on them that they’re getting taken, because a thin vein of hostility runs through their talks. 

“Whenever I hear that song,” Stewart said, after the band played his alma mater, “I think of nothing.” Colbert appeared at tiny Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. In the space of a half hour he managed to insult them by pretending not to know the name of their town, dropping the f-bomb twice in front of the assembled grandparents and moms and dads, and ridiculing the name of their sports teams (“ The ‘Prairie Fire’  .  .  .  I assume the ‘Flash Floods’ was taken”). 

The graduates roared with laughter. They’d seen him on TV.

 Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.

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