The last, and potentially most meaningful, bit of education your college throws your way comes at the very moment you're least likely to hear and comprehend it, let alone contemplate and cogitate on it. No, it's not in that 8 a.m. lecture class or evening seminar, but out among your fellow graduates on commencement day. There you are, resplendent in your cap and gown, ostensibly listening to someone famous and wise, but more likely awash in the exhilarations, fears, and hangovers of graduation. When you stride proudly into the sunset with your diploma, it's unlikely that you'll carry with you any of that carefully honed commencement address.
And that's a shame. Commencement speeches, historically, contain more nuggets of wisdom and insight than most spoken words you're likely to have heard or likely to hear. So we owe Peter J. Smith a considerable amount of gratitude for culling the best of the myriad observations and admonitions that have been aired at graduations over the last 25 years. The result is a remarkable anthology, replete with perspicacious bits that transcend the years, and imbued with historical markers that reflect the social and political changes of the past quarter century. It's a volume destined to be popular as a commencement gift and treasured as a reference tool for social scholars.
Smith includes highlights from such speakers as Art Buchwald, Isaac Asimov, George Plimpton, and Madeleine L'Engle in the 1970s, up through the Dalai Lama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Andy Rooney, and Madeleine Albright in the 1990s. You can compare the 1977 speeches of Studs Turkel and Shirley Chisholm, the 1990 speeches of Desmond Tutu and Gary Larson, the 1993 remarks of Jodie Foster and Ronald Reagan, the 1995 addresses of Annette Bening and Ann Richards, and the 1999 presentations of Alan Greenspan and Mumia Abu-Jamal. You can track the cultural shift of issues and values through the wit and exhortations of the speakers. And, if you read these snippets of sagacity in a quiet moment when you can concentrate and reflect, you might actually be able to absorb some of the acumen that was deflected by your mortarboard during your own commencement. --Stephanie Gold
About the Author
Peter J. Smith
is a fiction writer and journalist. He is the author of the novel A Good Family,
and his work has appeared in a variety of magazines, including The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, New York,
He lives with his family in western Massachusetts.