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.
1. Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005: Jobs hits all the right notes in this speech, in which he shares his own humble upbringings and reflects on his pancreatic cancer diagnosis. He told the crowd, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
2. Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss), Lake Forest College, 1977: When Lake Forest asked Geisel to come accept an honorary degree, he agreed, but he then balked at being their commencement speaker. “I talk with people, not to people,” he told the school’s president. Geisel relented at the ceremony and pulled out a 92-word poem he’d composed, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers”.
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3. J.K. Rowling, Harvard University, 2008: In her speech, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” Rowling reflects on her experience writing herself out of poverty. She told graduates about the benefits of failure, saying, “failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”
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?
5. Wynton Marsalis, Northwestern University, 2009: Marsalis is known for giving music and song-filled commencement speeches. At NYU’s commencement in 2007, he simply got on stage and played his trumpet for almost two minutes. Two years later, in 2009, he briefly spoke to a nearly rained-out crowd at Northwestern University, referencing lessons he’s taken from jazz legends and honestly addressing the realities of life.
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6. Anderson Cooper, Tulane University, 2010: Cooper hilariously reflected on his own lack of memory of his commencement address and poked fun at liberal arts majors: “I, too, was a liberal arts major, so like you, I have no actual skill.” But Cooper also told the seniors how much he admired them for taking the chance on coming back to school in New Orleans a year after Katrina. “Your choice helped this city rebuild.. re-new…re-start,” he said.
7. Will Ferrell, Harvard University, 2003: True to form, during his speech, Ferrell impersonated George W. Bush and read a “message” from the president. “Bush” hilariously thinks he’s speaking to the Class of 2002 and butters them up by saying, “Make no mistake, Harvard University is one of the finest in the land. And its graduates are that fine as well. You’re young men and women whose exuberance exude a confident confidence of a bygone era.”
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.
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9. Jon Stewart, College of William and Mary, 2004: Stewart headed back to his alma mater and delivered a classically funny, self-deprecating speech with lines like “In 1981 I lost my virginity, only to gain it back again on appeal in 1983” and “You could say that my one saving grace was academics where I excelled, but I did not.”
Stewart then went on to declare his faith in this generation, and shared how after 9/11 he was depressed and had lost hope, until “one day I was coming out of my building, and on my stoop, was a man who was crouched over, and he appeared to be in deep thought. And as I got closer to him I realized, he was playing with himself. And that’s when I thought, ‘You know what, we’re gonna be OK.’”
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.
Liz is GOOD’s education editor. She taught in Guangzhou, China and Compton, California, and worked for Teach For America. She’s written for Good Housekeeping, Parenting and numerous online publications.