In Praise of the Less-Than-Earnest Commencement Speech

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The 2011 East River Academy high school graduation at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

It’s that time of year: when millions of students around the country slip into their caps and gowns, and say goodbye to their lives in the classroom, and hello to their lives in the bigger world.

But first, they must sit through speeches, some of which will be boring, some of which will be inspiring, and most of which will be very earnest.

Alvin Hall thinks that maybe they should be a little less earnest. The internationally known financial educator and bestselling author once gave a commencement address at his alma mater, Bowdoin College, which ruffled feathers - and he thinks that’s a good thing.


Alvin Hall

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [3]

Cindy M. Black from Seattle, WA

Hello it's me, Cindy Black, who just posted below (1st time on The Takeaway!)

It occurred to me that I would add at least one more talking point to my "fantasy commencement speech" as per 1st comment. It would go something like this:

"...And for God's sake, stay away from violence! Passively experiencing violence, even fictional violence, utilizes the same neural pathways as real violence does. So a violence "rut" is established in your brain, leading to increased desensitization if you're "normal," increased propensity if you're, ah, not so. Exposure to violence reliably predicts subsequent acts of violence; that's been proven robustly for all age groups. Fight against the violence that permeates our society!"

Yep, I'd be sure to work that in, too.

May. 22 2013 11:28 PM
Cindy M. Black from Seattle, WA

I have always despised those sappy, predictable, overly earnest Goody-Two-Shoes commencement speeches. WHY can't people give out the practical advice so essential in today's world?!

Here are some of the talking points I'd put in a commencement speech (in no particular order): Be sure to interact, whenever possible, in the REAL-TIME, REAL-SPACE WORLD, not one enabled or created via electronics! Dealing with the materials and forces of the natural world, and interacting face to face with real people -- THAT'S what enables you to discover, define and value yourself, to understand others, and to calculate your relative position in various social contexts. THAT'S what enables you to cultivate good mental health! You CANNOT do this in cyberspace. Always try to give a stranger a little nod or smile, a quick acknowledgement of his/her existence, because that's what breaks down the walls of interpersonal alienation that're so rapidly separating people in these troubled times. Also, it gives a slender lifeline of connectedness to those just barely hanging onto the ragged edges of sanity and society, people who are more and more rapidly falling off that edge and creating terrible stories for the next day's news. Always be kind to animals, for animals are much smarter and can suffer much more profoundly than most people realize. Travel around, do stuff, collect adventures... these things will come to define you and inspire your life much more than money will. Eat good food, and learn all you can about taking care of your own health, both mental and physical! Because in these troubled times, nobody is gonna do that for you, and you may well be out of luck when you need help down the road. Do everything you can to learn about and help protect this planet! Study and educate yourself on what's going on and what you can do! Otherwise, and sadly very very soon, it will truly be too late and you may as well not even think of having kids because of the horrible problems they will have to endure. Similarly, learn everything you can about how the wielding of power by the powerful few degrades quality of life for the many -- and the myriad tricks, spins and subterfuges used to conceal and enable this sorry dynamic. In other words, learn everything you can about human psychology, how it works, and how it's used to the advantage of those in the know. In these competitive, complex modern times, if you don't understand basic human psychology, you will most likely end up getting screwed -- and badly. Well, there are many more, but for the purposes of this comment I will only say:
"Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen... and as you go out into the world today, I wish you Good Luck! You're gonna need it."

May. 22 2013 08:01 PM
Neal Galash from Portland, Oregon

Here is a commencement speech from 2009 that everyone should read.

May. 22 2013 01:44 PM

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