Commencement Addresses

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First, an offering to new commencement speakers


I’ve been studying commencement speeches for thirty years and would like to offer a few words to new speakers for 2021 and beyond.

You have a dramatic challenge: the radical transformation of your audience. Students across the world are worried that their future hangs by a thread. Many are angry that we, their parents and grandparents, have created almost irredeemable catastrophes. We have failed environmentally, politically, socially, morally, and spiritually. Even our air and water are threatened  –  not to mention we still stockpile weapons that could destroy life on Earth in minutes.

Only the most myopic and self-serving perceive a comfortable and safe future. This year’s graduates face the harshest reality of any generation in history, more sobering than even the darkest days of World Wars I and II, which essentially were assaults on human dignity, kindness and common sense but did not threaten the habitability of the planet itself.

But now, the context for a graduation speech has changed severely. The reason is precise and unavoidable: if humanity cannot create and agree on solutions to our urgent air, water, food and land crises, graduates may well spend their lives in constant struggle, bereft of most blessings now considered “normal.”

Clarion calls for environmental sanity from as far back as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold have been proven real and prescient. Still we cover our ears to scientific fact, not to mention shield our hearts from admitting what a dangerous world we are leaving for our children. In naïve and selfish preference for material welfare at the sacrifice of sustainable life, we are trashing our only home, whistling past the cosmic graveyard. As we lose bees, we destroy the cycle of life. As we heat glaciers, we flood our cities. As we burn coal, we breathe toxins.  

Writer Toni Morrison was among the first commencement speakers to address directly the possibility of a diminishing rather than an expanding future. At Wellesley College in May 2004, she stated: “…I’m not going to talk anymore about the future because I’m hesitant to describe or predict because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage a trois of political interests, corporate interests and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future.”

Environmentalist Paul Hawken followed suit in May 2009 at the University of Portland: “You are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.”

And Professor E. O. Wilson in May 2011 at the University of North Carolina added: “… this is the time we either will settle down as a species or completely wreck the planet.”

Now, this is nothing less than a planetary reckoning. Spurred, for example, by the courage and clarity of young climate activist Greta Thurnburg of Sweden demanding “action and not hope,” or by the gravity of the Parkland High students intent on gun legislation, the world is finally waking to the emergency. In fact, forefront nonprofits like the International Rescue Committee (aiding refugees in crisis) and Ashoka (supporting systemic social change) work at nothing less than sustaining humanity’s viable existence on Earth.

So as you compose your remarks this spring, consider that you are the messengers of this era. And since many speeches now find traction on the Internet, your potential audience has expanded exponentially, making it even less appealing to hide behind the insulting simplicity of bromides and platitudes. Make no mistake: students worldwide are hearing the sirens. They want to know how to effect and participate in transformative change. You have a unique opportunity to help them analyze and clarify the challenges ahead.

So no matter your chosen core message, no matter the style of your delivery, please offer the next generation  -  and all of us   -  some insight, some inspiration, some wisdom about how to rescue our awesome but fragile home in these next few crucial years of human evolution.

No pressure there!


Now back to our traditional text for this section, including (if you scroll down) all 45 of the most inspirational speeches dating back to 1936:

The commencement ceremony affirms each student’s search for knowledge. It often includes a speech that seeks to put their recent hard (or not so hard) work into the context of their future. Many of us hear one or two commencement addresses as graduates or listen to a handful as spectators. Yet – as we graduate from one year to another, one relationship to another, one experience to another – we always are learning.

Though these myriad departures and arrivals of everyday existence are seldom met with ceremony, words traditionally reserved for momentous occasions may ring true and inspirational at any hour. That’s why The Humanity Initiative created this unique archive of commencement addresses (below), selecting an eclectic menu of thirty-eight extraordinary speeches from almost seven thousand that we have reviewed since beginning work on this initiative in 1989. 

Though some of these wonderful remarks were given decades ago, we believe they are as relevant and important, perhaps increasingly so, as more current speeches. Thus we encourage you to read with abandon and an open heart, recognizing and celebrating your own constant commencement into tomorrow, finding ways to place it firmly within the context of progress for all humankind.

In fact, here’s a terrific new video, made in May of 2017, by Nimo Patel, Nipun Mehta and folks from all over the world, that says it all much better than I:….

P.S.    We sometimes are asked for our Top Ten Commencement Speeches of All Time, so we chose the most inspirational and deeply considered.  Also, these ten work well together as a menu of reflection on how each of us, no matter age or circumstance, might magnify our life.

1/     David Foster Wallace    “Real Freedom?”    Kenyon  2005

2/     J. K. Rowling    “Failure and Imagination”  Harvard  2008

3/     Paul Hawken    ”The Earth is Hiring    Portland  2009

4/     Barbara Kingsolver    “Your Money or Your LIfe”    Duke  2008

5/     Steve Jobs    “Find What You Love”    Stanford  2005

6/     Bono    “That’s Not a Cause. That’s an Emergency.”    Penn  2004

7/     Vaclav Havel    “Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility”    Harvard  1995

8/     Toni Morrison    “Be Your Own Story”    Wellesley  2004

9/     Neil Gaiman    “Make Good Art”    University of the Arts  2012

10/   George Saunders    “Becoming Kinder”    Syracuse  2013

Also, for the fun of it, here a few outstanding class day speeches, given to seniors the day before commencement.

And a few suggestions on how to write a commencement speech.

Lastly, the audio from a Public Radio show a few years back: Minnesota Public Radio show on commencement speeches, June 2011.


Index of Outstanding Speeches from 1936 to 2013

Michelle Obama You All Are Exactly What We Need Right Now
Chicago, Illinois via the Internet
June 7, 2020
Marty Barron Facts and Truth
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
May 28, 2020
Oprah Winfrey "Be The Truth!"
The Annenberg School of Communications, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California USA
May 11, 2018
Robert S. Mueller III "Honesty, Integrity, Patience, Humility"
Tabor Academy, Marion, Massachusetts USA
May 29, 2017
Matt Damon Where Will You Face?
Massachusetts Institute of Techology June 2016
June 2016
Donovan Livingston "Lift Off!"
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
May 25, 2016
Michelle Obama "You've Got It"
Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama USA
May 9, 2015
Jim Carrey commencement speech Jim Carrey The Affect You Have On Others
Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, Iowa. USA
May 30, 2014
Billy Kanoi "No Such Thing 'No Can' "
Hawaii Pacific University
May 21, 2014
Tim Minchin "Life Is Meaningless"
University of Western Australia, Crawley, Australia
September 17, 2013
David Brooks "What Me Worry"
Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana USA
May 3, 2013
George Saunders "Becoming Kinder"
Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York USA
May 11, 2013
Barack Obama "Dedicated Citizenship"
Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio USA
May 5, 2013
Richard Costolo "Be In This Moment"
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan USA
May 4, 2013
Dr. Stephen R. Kellert "Humanity and Nature"
School of Education and School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, University of Western Sydney, Australia
April 17, 2013
Eric Greitens "Stronger Ideals"
Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts USA
May 20, 2012
Neil Gaiman "Make Good Art"
University of the Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA
May 17, 2012
Barack Obama "Reach Back"
Barnard College, New York City, USA
May 14, 2012
Stephen Colbert "Love Made Visible"
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois USA
June 17, 2011
Dr. Edward O. Wilson "What We Wish to Become"
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina USA
May 8, 2011
Meryl Streep "Acting in the Wider World"
Barnard College, New York City
May 18, 2010
Lynn Sherr "Embrace the Revolution"
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts USA
May 10, 2010
Paul Hawken The Earth is Hiring
University of Portland. Portland, Oregon USA
May 3, 2009
J. K. Rowling "Failure and Imagination"
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
June 5, 2008
Barack Obama “Make Us Believe Again”
Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut USA
May 28, 2008
Barbara Kingsolver "Your Money or Your LIfe"
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina USA
May 11, 2008
Bill Gates "Great Expectations"
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
June 7, 2007
Alice Greenwald "Why Does Memory Matter?"
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, USA
May 18, 2007
Ken Burns "A Vanguard Against This New Separatism"
Georgetown University, Washington D.C., USA
May 20, 2006
Steve Jobs "Find What You Love"
Stanford University, Palo Alto, California USA
June 12, 2005
Thomas L. Friedman "Listen to Your Heart"
Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts USA
June 5, 2005
David Foster Wallace “Real Freedom?”
Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, USA
May 21, 2005
Toni Morrison "Be Your Own Story"
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts USA
May 28, 2004
Bono “That's not a cause. That's an emergency.”
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA
May 17, 2004
Wally Lamb “What do Novelists Know?”
Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut USA
May 18, 2003
Dr. Martha C. Nussbaum “Compassionate Citizenship”
Georgetown University, Washington D.C. USA
May 16, 2003
Lewis Lapham “Merlin's Owl”
St. John's College - Annapolis, Annapolis, Maryland, USA
May 11, 2003
Fred Rogers at Dartmouth 2002 Fred Rogers "The Best of Whoever You Are"
Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire USA
June 8, 2002
Daniel S. Goldin "Gallileo and the Search for Truth"
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
June 8, 2001
Roger Rosenblatt "Get A Job"
Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
May 18, 1998
Photo: His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama "Education and the Warm Heart"
Emory University, Druid Hills, Georgia USA
May 16 (?),1998
Nora Ephron "Be The Heroine"
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts USA
May 25, 1996
Russell Baker Russell Baker “10 Ways to Avoid Mucking Up the World Any Worse Than It Already Is"
Connecticut College, New London, Connecticut USA
May 27, 1995
Vaclav Havel "Radical Renewal of Human Responsibility"
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
May 12, 1995
Cornel West "An Abiding Sense of History"
Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut USA
May 30, 1993
William Zinsser "Living Is The Trick"
Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut USA
May 12, 1988
Meg Greenfield "A Better Truth"
Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts USA
June 14, 1987
Ms Gloria Steinem "What I Know Now That I Wish I'd Known Then"
Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts USA
May 17, 1987
Margaret Atwood "Attitude"
The University Of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
June 14th, 1983
Ursula K. Le Guin "A Left-handed Commencement Address"
Mills College, Oakland, California USA
May 19, 1983
William H. Gass "On Learning To Talk"
Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, USA
June 4, 1979
Alan Alda "The Head Bone and the Heart Bone"
Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City USA
June 1979
Theodor Seuss Geisel "My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers"
Lake Forest College Lake Forest, Illinois, USA
June 4, 1977
Lyndon Baines Johnson "The Great Society"
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
May 22, 1964
John F. Kennedy "We All Breathe The Same Air"
American University, Washington, D.C. USA
June 10, 1963
Robert Frost "The thing is, the measure"
Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York USA
Thursday, June 7. 1956
George C. Marshall "What Must Be Done?"
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts USA
June 5, 1947
William Allen White "Eternal Resilience"
Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois USA
June 20 (?), 1936