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Commencement Speeches

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 we created this unique archive of commencement addresses (below), selecting an eclectic menu of thirty-eight extraordinary speeches from thousands 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 the 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.

               - Tony Balis

P.S.    Here is our new list of the Top Ten Commencement Speeches of All Time (on this planet anyway). We chose these speeches because they are they most inspirational and deeply considered.  Also, they work well together as a menu of reflection on how each of us, no matter age or circumstance, might fully 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, we recently began to hallmark a few outstanding class day speeches, given to seniors the day before commencement. In addition, here are our suggestions on how to write a commencement speech.

We include as well a recent Al Jazeera America news segment (file:///Users/cwbalis/Desktop/Al%20Jazeera%20video%20clip%206:14.webloc) and 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

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
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
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
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
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