A collection of recent graduation speeches meant to inspire, edited by New Press education editor Grove and recent Harvard grad Ostrer.
A great deal of importance is placed upon graduating from college, that day of pomp, of endings and beginnings, and colleges have become very competitive in seeking out luminaries to deliver those rousing speeches to the graduates. With nearly 2,000 speeches to be given every year—and that’s just the private, four-year institutions—it’s a tall order to put together a speech that lives on after the mortarboards launch skyward. The ones that do transcend, though, can be powerful calls to take heed of what came before. With a mix of speeches from journalists, scientists, musicians, novelists and others, the forms of inspiration found here run the gamut. Thoughts from recognizable names are recognizable in content but also offer few surprises: Oliver Stone speaking about treating the mind like a garden, for example. Toni Morrison, speaking of a time when “the language at the feet of the Statue of Liberty has been paved over,” attempts to close the imagination gap required to move that notion from an impossibility to an inevitability. Tony Kushner says “hope grapples endlessly with despair,” and it rings true. Reading the speeches from before 9/11 and after is both heartbreaking and uplifting, and the tonal shifts are apparent. The contributor list is impressive and includes Anna Quindlen, Barbara Kingsolver, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Howard Zinn, Ursula K. Le Guin and Bryan Stevenson.
Not all the speeches break new ground, but they are uplifting in their overarching focus: There is important work to be done in this world, regardless of the large and small events of our lives.