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Commencement speech

December 23, 2014

When I graduated from college in 1990, I had mixed feelings about wearing an academic robe. I was thrilled to be graduating, but the black robes seemed a bit pompous and elitist.

I had recently returned from a year in Germany, where academic dress had been abandoned since the 1960s due to its perceived association with right-wing authoritarianism. I had heard the slogan “Unter den Talaren, Muff von 1000 Jahren” — “Beneath the gowns, the mustiness of 1000 years” — a reference to both outdated university traditions and the “Thousand Year Reich” of the Nazis. The slogan first appeared in 1967 on a banner unfurled by two law students in a packed auditorium at the University of Hamburg. It became popular in the context of student protests against the failure of German universities to come to terms with the Nazi past.

Since the mid-1990s, academic dress has gradually returned to many German universities. When I started at Sacramento State in 2003, my department chair told me the department would buy an academic robe for me, if I wanted one. I hesitated for a while, since I assumed it came with the expectation that I would regularly attend commencement. But I decided to take the robe, and overall I’ve come to see commencement as an important and enjoyable occasion. Of course some of it is rather tedious, but I like shaking the students’ hands and seeing their pride and excitement.

Last Friday I again attended commencement, but I didn’t get to shake many hands, since this year I was the faculty speaker of my college, the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Our college gives speakers five minutes. At first that sounded ridiculously short, but once I discovered how difficult it is to prepare such a speech, I was glad that I didn’t have to fill more time.

Of course I procrastinated, in part by reading commencement speeches and advice about commencement speeches. I found a useful list of suggestions on writing a commencement speech, which said to “Honor the occasion,” “Keep it under 18 minutes” (no problem there), “Be utterly yourself,” “Startle them,” and “Speak slowly and well.”

Also helpful was NPR’s “Anatomy of A Great Commencement Speech,” which listed four rules: “Be funny,” “Make fun of yourself,” “Downplay the genre,” and “You must have a message.”

NPR also has an online database of over 300 of the best commencement speeches, including this fantastic speech by Meryl Streep.

In the end I finished the speech with enough extra time to practice it twice in the kitchen, before struggling into my storied academic robe and driving to the massive sports arena where we hold commencement.

Overall it seems to have gone alright. A few people told me the acoustics were so bad that they could barely understand any of the speakers, including me — aargh! — but others said they could understand me just fine.

Here’s the text of my speech:

I feel very honored to speak to you today and to congratulate you, Sacramento State graduates of 2014. Unfortunately, I’ve never given a commencement speech before, and I really had no idea how to prepare. So I did what any tenured professor with over twenty-five years of education and a Ph.D. would do: I googled it.

Before long I found myself watching videos of fantastic commencement speeches by Meryl Streep and Michelle Obama and other luminaries. I read what I should do (speak slowly, keep it short), and I read what I absolutely should not do (don’t make it about yourself). I learned that I should offer advice, anecdotes, humor, inspiration, hope, and wisdom – all in five minutes. And I learned that I should speak from my experience, make it personal, and above all, make the speech my own and don’t imitate anyone else.

As you can probably guess – given that you’re practically college graduates – I soon realized that all this online input wasn’t really helping very much. I was getting a lot of information, but not very much knowledge or understanding. And I also wasn’t practicing my speech.

Then I remembered something I’ve often told my students: you can get information anytime, anywhere. But knowledge, understanding, and know-how – those require real work. The kind of work that a student of mine was doing when she said that she could only understand half of the text I had assigned – a difficult text in eighteenth-century political theory – but she was enjoying the challenge. Or the work that another student was doing when he wrote a research paper on climate change, even though the topic made him anxious and depressed. Long hours of study, intense conversations with a wide range of people, engagement with new ideas and worldviews. You can do that kind of work in various ways, but one excellent way is to go to college.

As college graduates, you’ve not only acquired knowledge and understanding, but in a broader sense, you’ve become more free.

Free of what? Your education certainly hasn’t been free of financial cost – for you, or your parents, or the California taxpayers.

Has college made you more free to get your dream job? I think it probably has. And since this is the college of social sciences, I’m happy to report that, no, not all social science majors are unemployed, and it’s actually not true that only business and engineering majors go on to successful careers. And in any case, a recent survey found that the number one thing that young people today want in a career is not a high salary, but a sense of personal meaning and social purpose.

If a college education makes you more free to pursue your chosen career, what makes your career choice a truly free choice? Freedom of mind. That’s another kind of freedom you’ve learned in college. The capacity to know yourself, to think for yourself, to understand your genuine needs and interests.

And even free thinking people are not truly free if they live with economic anxiety, or ecological destruction, or fear of bigotry and violence. And so at Sacramento State, you’ve also learned political freedom: the capacity to shape the policies and decisions that shape your lives – not only in government but at work, and at home, and wherever people need to find ways of making decisions together. As college graduates, you’re prepared to go beyond watching the news – or at least The Daily Show – and start making some news of your own.

I hope your college education has made you more free in all of these ways. And I hope that if you’re ever asked to prepare a commencement speech, or any speech, and if you start by going online, you’ll also remember to get into your head and your heart, and out into the world. That’s where the real action is

And now I’m already out of time, and I was supposed to give you some advice. I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know, but I’ll say that as you leave Sacramento State, remember to be kind and courageous – challenge ignorance, challenge yourself – live with nature, live a lot – take action, take care – and don’t forget to write.

Thank you, and congratulations on all your hard work.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. oseb11 permalink
    December 23, 2014 8:31 PM

    I heard you did an excellent job! I wish you would’ve given a speech when I graduated in 2011… your classes taught me how to look at all aspects before making a decision, thank you.

  2. Wesley permalink
    December 29, 2014 9:57 AM

    Well done Mark!

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