The Longform Guide to Commencement Addresses
Sheryl Sandberg, David Foster Wallace, Jon Stewart—the best graduation speeches of the past 25 years.
Daily Show host Jon Stewart
Photograph by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for the Robin Hood Foundation.
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You probably slept through it, but there's a chance the commencement speech at your graduation was actually great. Over on Longform, we put together a collection of a dozen our favorites this week. Below are five from that list—some long, some short, some funny, some cheesy—delivered over the last 25 years.
Congratulations! Now good luck paying off your loans.
Note: On Monday, May 14, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes died. In 1983 he gave what is by all accounts a brilliant commencement address at Harvard, but we can't find the transcript. If you have it, let me know by tweeting @jodyavirgan.
Update: Carlos Fuetes’ 1983 Harvard Commencement speech has now been posted online here.
Sheryl Sandberg • Barnard College • December 2009
The Facebook COO on her generation’s failures and the continuing gender gap in American business and politics.
“So today, we turn to you. You are the promise for a more equal world. You are our hope. I truly believe that only when we get real equality in our governments, in our businesses, in our companies and our universities, will we start to solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality. We need women at all levels, including the top, to change the dynamic, reshape the conversation, to make sure women’s voices are heard and heeded, not overlooked and ignored.
So my hope for all of you here, for every single one of you, is that you’re going to walk across the stage and get your diploma. You’re going to go out tonight or maybe all summer and celebrate. You deserve it. And then you’re going to lean way into your career. You’re going to find something you love doing, and you’re going to do it with gusto. You’re going to pick your field and you’re going to ride it all the way to the top.”
David Foster Wallace • Kenyon College • May 2005
The author comments on the medium of the graduation cliché while still advancing it:
“Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ’teaching you how to think.’ If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think.”
Atul Gawande • Stanford School of Medicine • June 2010
The doctor and New Yorker writer on embracing the shortcomings of expertise:
“I didn’t feel much better equipped when my wife had two miscarriages, or when our first child was born with part of his aorta missing, or when my daughter had a fall and dislocated her elbow, and I failed to recognize it, or when my wife tore a ligament in her wrist that I’d never heard of—her velluvial matrix, I think it was.
This is a deeper, more fundamental problem than we acknowledge. The truth is that the volume and complexity of the knowledge that we need to master has grown exponentially beyond our capacity as individuals. Worse, the fear is that the knowledge has grown beyond our capacity as a society. When we talk about the uncontrollable explosion in the costs of health care in America, for instance—about the reality that we in medicine are gradually bankrupting the country—we’re not talking about a problem rooted in economics. We’re talking about a problem rooted in scientific complexity.”
Jon Stewart • William & Mary • May 2004
Speaking to a group that started their college lives in 2000, the host of The Daily Show embraces how difficult the real world is:*
“I want to address is the idea that somehow this new generation is not as prepared for the sacrifice and the tenacity that will be needed in the difficult times ahead. I have not found this generation to be cynical or apathetic or selfish. They are as strong and as decent as any people that I have met. And I will say this, on my way down here I stopped at Bethesda Naval, and when you talk to the young kids that are there that have just been back from Iraq and Afghanistan, you don’t have the worry about the future that you hear from so many that are not a part of this generation but judging it from above.”
Meg Greenfield • Williams College • June 1987
Former Washington Post opinion page editor Greenfield on not being overwhelmed by the past in the search for a “better truth”:
“History helps guard against moral smugness too, or it should, anyway. For you are obliged, if you are honest, to acknowledge at least some reflection or resonance of the fallen ones in your own nature. Such humility is a conspicuously missing aspect of our contemporary culture, however. What might be a becoming spell of moral introspection, tends instead to become an orgy of bashing and blaming. I observe that now, as always in this country, when people speak of a terrible, all embracing decline in ethical standards, they are invariably speaking of the decline in their next door neighbor’s standards, not their own.”
Have a favorite speech we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.
Correction, May 21, 2012: This article originally referred to the audience at Jon Stewart's 2004 speech as "a group that started their college lives in September 2001." The audience would have mostly comprised students who entered college in 2000. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Jody Avirgan is a contributing editor at Longform.