Do Famous People Really Give the Best Commencement Speeches?

'Tis the season for A-list lectern bloviation, and all the joy and yawning that comes with it.

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Local colleges are always trying to get big-name commencement speakers, and you usually see them on the local news, so I guess it works for publicity. But do the most famous people always give the best speeches? —L.T., Maynard


’Tis the season for A-list lectern bloviation, and all the joy and yawning that comes with it! Forgive me, L.T., but I’ve long been cynical about this tradition, and my tale here will tell you why. Back in 1991, the biggest name on Earth, a sitting U.S. president, touched down in my hometown of New Haven to speak at Yale’s commencement. I was excited to sneak in and see what George H.W. Bush had to say about his alma mater, but alas, his speech was mostly a dense foreign policy statement about why he was planning to renew China’s Most Favored Nation trade status.

To be fair, delivering a commencement speech isn’t easy. You need to form some nebulous bond with a mass of student strangers a generation or three younger than you, and somehow let them know that you share the same concerns about the scary but exciting future lurking around the corner. And you need to do these things while evoking your mightiness—because you’re important, after all, or else you wouldn’t be there.

If anyone has risen to the challenge over the years, it would be the late Toni Morrison, who came to Wellesley in 2004. As a Nobel laureate in literature, her speech was thoughtful but also unsentimental, as she encouraged students to not accept the flawed society of her generation, but to go out and improve it. And she did so gracefully with a literary metaphor: “You are your own stories…. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.”

But frankly, after reading dozens of big-name commencement speeches, they all started to run together in my mind, proving that inspirational tropes—regardless of who’s delivering them—can easily feel uninspiring. That’s why I loved revisiting comedian Andy Samberg’s satirical speech at Harvard’s 2012 Class Day: “Class of 2012, you are graduating from college. That means this is the first day of the last day of your life. No, that’s wrong. This is the last day of the first day of school. Nope that’s worse. This is a day.” What he understood, which I welcomed, is that irreverence can be a breath of fresh air amid the pomp and circumstance—no matter how famous you are.