May 2022: What Makes for a Good Commencement Address?

What’s the Purpose of Commencement Ceremonies? And What Makes for a Good Commencement Address?

This case study is somewhat different in that we are going to focus on an academic ceremony many Americans find important — commencements  — and the peculiar genre of public speaking featured at those events: The commencement address.

May is the month during which most graduations and commencements occur. This May, however, is special. In 2020, many comment ceremonies were canceled due to Covid-related closures, regulations, and executive orders. Still, in 2021, many schools conducted commencements online, with limited numbers of people attending in-person, or none at all. 

May 2022, will be the first time in three years, across the United States and around the Globe, that people will gather in person to honor their loved ones who walk across stages, shake hands with academic dignitaries, and turn their tassels from the right to the left. All commencements are important for the people attending them; the 2022 commencements are even more so. 

The question is: What should be said at a commencement? What makes for a good, or even excellent, commencement address? If any of us, the members of The Vino & Veritas Society, are invited to give a commencement address, how should we think about preparing such a speech?

This challenge is made all the more complicated by the fact that many educational institutions, including virtually all colleges and universities, with very few exceptions, and most high schools, have been transformed into centers of progressive indoctrination, advocacy, and cheerleading. 

The Vino & Veritas Society devoted an entire case study to the question of what education means, what education should be, precisely because progressivism has perverted American schools so much. When we think about students graduating, now, and the commencement ceremonies that honor those graduates, we should remind ourselves of the actual schools from which students are graduating, not the kinds of schools from which we wish they were graduating. 

 

COMMENCEMENT: A BEGINNING, OR START

“Commencement” is a term used to describe a ceremony held at the end of the school year honoring those who have completed a prescribed course of study at a high school, college, or university.

Commencement is not the same as graduation. Graduation is when a person has successfully and officially completed all requirements set forth by an academic institution and is awarded a diploma or degree. Commencement is a celebratory ceremony, usually open to family, friends, and loved ones, honoring graduating students.

At the college and university level, the names of earned degrees derive from the medieval guild system, back when young, single men — bachelors — would train under a master craftsman or artist in order to learn the craft or the art and prepare themselves to be productive, make a living, and someday provide for a family. 

Hence, the Bachelor’s Degree and the Master’s Degree. 

There are several “terminal” graduate degrees, meaning they are the highest degrees possible in certain fields of study, such as the Juris Doctorate (or J.D.) for lawyers and the Medical Doctor (or Doctor of Medicine, or M.D.) for physicians. The highest academic degree, usually awarded to those who intend to continue the work of the “academy,” and which requires original research (in the form of a dissertation) advancing a field of study or discipline, is the Doctor of Philosophy, or Ph.D. 

The Latin root of our modern word “doctor” means something similar to the Hebrew root of the word “rabbi,” namely, a wise, learned, master teacher, someone rightfully respected for offering sage advice. 

Anyone attending a college or university commencement ceremony immediately notices the elaborate regalia worn by graduating students, faculty, and other notable speakers and participants, including gowns, hoods, and caps.

These “regal” articles of clothing date back to the earliest institutions of higher education, a thousand years ago, when most instructors were members of the clergy, and therefore dressed like members of the clergy, donning the kinds of gowns and clothing one might see at a religious church service. 

It became customary, centuries ago, for graduating students to imitate the dress of their professors at commencement ceremonies. Today,  carrying on that tradition.

They also wear a strange-looking hat, the mortarboard, resembling a square piece of cardboard stapled to a skull cap, with a tassel attached at the top. Moving the tassel from the right side of the mortarboard to the left is symbolic of officially graduating. 

Students earning post-graduate degrees, such as the Master’s Degree, Ph.D., J.D., or M.D., as well as faculty, typically wear a round, soft, velvety hat known as a “tam.” Their robes, too, are more elaborate and more colorful, featuring panels on the front, chevrons on the sleeves, and a velvet hood denoting one’s academic discipline. The higher the degree, the fancier the gown.

It’s good to remember at these ceremonies that the word “commencement” means a beginning, or a start. To commence something is to initiate or launch something, to get it going. 

Commencements are not about endings or completions. Graduates should not assume their days of learning are over, or that their education is complete. Neither is true. Graduation is a chapter in a person’s life. Or, maybe a page within a chapter. It’s not the end of the book. 

Learning is one of the most natural of all human phenomena. Each of us begins to learn long before we consciously, purposefully choose to learn. From the moment we are born — even before we are born — we are learning. For most human beings, for example, we don’t choose to learn how to speak. We simply and naturally learn how to speak by listening to those around us speak and then imitating them. 

Whether we are enrolled in school or not, we are learning all the time. We can’t help it. We can learn more quickly, perhaps more deeply, by choosing to learn certain things and focusing our attention, but we cannot not learn. We keep learning from the time we enter the world until we die. Whether we continue learning after death is a subject the theologically-interested are welcome to debate. 

A commencement is a beginning. If you’re a graduating student, a commencement is the beginning of the rest of your life. It’s a new chapter in life. It’s a start. The premise of every commencement ceremony is that there is something worth doing, something worth experiencing, something worth achieving, that makes the rest of life, starting today, worth living.

Back to our question: What should be said at a commencement ceremony? What makes for a good, or even excellent, commencement address? Here are some suggestions:

PRUDENCE

Prudence is practical wisdom, the ability to choose the wisest course of action here and now, after considering all the particular and relevant details. It is among the most useful and important of all the virtues, and it relies upon the other virtues. 

Graduating students should want to be prudent. Yet, they can’t. They’re not old enough. They haven’t experienced enough life to be prudent.

While much can be learned from books, including facts, methods, and procedures, prudence, requires both practice and experience. Prudence is the result of making many decisions — including bad ones — and learning from one’s mistakes. 

Remind students that one of the most important of all virtues, prudence, is something they should want. They should cultivate prudence by studying their own choices and the choices made by others, over time, and seeing what kinds of choices lead to what kinds of results. 

CHARACTER MATTERS

As mentioned above, book-learning is important. Grades are important. Graduating with honors and academic distinctions is important. 

Yet, the smartest person in the world might have problems finding someone who wants to work with him if people don’t trust him. 

It turns out that character matters as much, perhaps more, than sheer intellect and brains. 

In his famous little book, The Nicomachean Ethics, there’s a reason Aristotle presents the moral virtues before the intellectual virtues. In decisive respects, the moral virtues come before the intellectual virtues, they are more important, because the moral virtues decide for what purposes the intellectual virtues will be exercised. 

A genius without a moral compass can become a mass-murdering tyrant, which is not worthy of congratulations. 

Also, great defects in moral character can greatly reduce intellectual ability. A person frozen with fear, or consumed with rage, or envy, or appetites, is a person who is unlikely to think well.

A well-educated person knows that being good is as important as being smart.

PREPARE THEM FOR FAILURES

Yes, it’s commencement and a time for new beginnings. It’s a time for optimism. It’s also a time to be real.

Many of the graduating students are going to fail, in all kinds of ways, repeatedly. Prepare them for the failures they will face. Help them understand the important lessons to be learned from failures, including what not to do and how to do something better. 

At the same time, prepare students for success. 

Some graduates are going to achieve their dreams, and more. Remind them that no matter the material successes they enjoy, the key virtues of good citizenship — self-restraint, self-assertion, civic knowledge, and self-reliance — are important for them, as individuals, and for the future of the United States.

Being a good, virtuous person is necessary to be happy. Being a good, virtuous citizen is necessary to be free. 

INSPIRE

The nature of commencement ceremonies offers a perfect opportunity to inspire students. Inspire them to be ambitious, creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative. Inspire them to be free and independent. Inspire them to flourish, prosper, and be free, good, and happy.

A good commencement speech is inspirational and aspirational. 

DON’T HIDE FROM CHALLENGES

Students at a commencement exercise have been working, training, studying, preparing. 

They’re similar to athletes who have been getting ready for a new season of games: They want to compete and see what they can do. 

Encourage that competition, that testing of mettle.

Virtus tentamine gaudet is an ancient Latin maxim that translates as: “Strength rejoices in the challenge.” Encourage graduating students to find challenges that will test the knowledge and skills they’ve been honing.

OTHERS

If graduating students want to be free and independent — and they should! — they must be self-reliant. In order to be self-reliant, they must create wealth for themselves. 

The only way to create new wealth for oneself is to produce what others value. 

Paying attention to ourselves is easy because narcissism is natural. Being self-absorbed requires little effort. The question is whether someone can pay attention to others, figure out what others value, and then find a way to produce, provide, or deliver what others want, need, and appreciate. 

Creating wealth for oneself by producing or delivering value to others is one of the most beautiful ideas ever discovered by the human mind precisely because everyone wins, everyone benefits. Creating wealth unites the interests of two or more people. 

TELL A MEMORABLE STORY

What do almost all commencement speeches have in common? Almost no one remembers them five, ten, twenty years later. 

If you want a commencement speech to be remembered, tell a story that people won’t forget because the story moves them, emotionally and intellectually.

BE SINCERE

If you don’t believe what you’re saying, neither will those in the audience. 

Whether you are telling some story about yourself or a story about others that matters to you, be sincere and let that sincerity come across to those listening to you. 

An audience is much more understanding, and forgiving, of a speaker who genuinely believes and cares about what he’s saying — and it shows — than a speaker who doesn’t.

BE FUNNY

Commencement Day is a day filled with light, hope, and optimism. It’s a day of good energy with lots of hugs, smiles, and laughs. 

Don’t be a Debbie Downer. Radiate joy. Inspire. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be a little funny — or a lot funny — and encourage students, their parents, and others in the audience to laugh. 

DON’T BE TOO LONG-WINDED

Just because you like to hear yourself speak doesn’t mean everyone else does. Don’t be too long in your speech.

At the same time, don’t be too short, either. It’s an important day marking important achievements by many students. Give sufficient honor to those who deserve it, say the important things that should be said, and then find a graceful, entertaining, memorable way to close. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Figuring out what a good commencement speech should be is a great exercise in prudence. We live in an age when most Americans speak and think like progressives, especially those who occupy college and university campuses. How does one communicate big ideas, important principles, and beautiful virtues to them? 

Can you offer to fellow members of The Vino & Veritas Society an example of what a good commencement address should be?

  • Search for commencement speeches on Youtube. You’ll find many. Do any stand out in your opinion as a model? Which ones? Why? 
  • Can you write an excellent commencement address? Can you deliver it? Is there a difference between writing an excellent speech and delivering it well?
  • Are there important qualities in a commencement address that have been ignored in this case study? What are they and why are they important?

Responses

  1. So many sensible public-speaking suggestions here. And I appreciate them being framed within the context of commencement. I would love to someday deliver a commencement speech, and when I do, the guidelines put forth here will equip me to do it all the better. (And when I do give a commencement speech, I’ll wear a Stetson instead of the elaborate regalia everyone else favors.)