by Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

It’s graduation season. I’ll be fulfilling one aspect of my duties as faculty by attending RMU’s commencement ceremony on June 6, 2014. GraduationRMU

I find commencement speeches utterly fascinating and ceaselessly inspiring, so too do the people at NPR, who recently published a list of 300 speeches going all the way back to 1774 under the auspicious title The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever, and I tend to believe them. I’ll be listening with rapt attention to many on this list.

My list is less ambitious: JK Rowling at Harvard in 2008; Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005; David Foster Wallace at Kenyon in 2005, and I am certain (without even looking) that my favorite commencement addresses are considered among the ones designated by NPR as “Best, Ever.”

One of the best ways to annoy my students is require them to invite them to listen to a commencement address; they are not as fond of the form as I am. Fortunately, I enjoy tormenting my students with a relentless onslaught of profound ideas.

I share these speeches with my students with the ideal outcome of a rousing discussion about the implications of the advice shared and the insights offered. As is true of so many things, this lesson is more successful in theory than in practice. Nevertheless, I persevere. Perhaps they’ll thank me someday, perhaps not.

JK Rowling’s terrific address overflows with her lovely, self-effacing, dry British humor, but the heart-wrenching sadness at the core of the imaginative process is the true revelation.

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Steve Jobs offers a poignant discussion of his own experiences as a college drop out. His decision to audit classes just because he wanted to learn helps students understand that learning is a lifelong process, and while learning can be formal, it is just as often not.

“The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. . . Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class. . . It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

EinsteinThe joys and rewards of disinterested learning are made evident though Jobs’ tireless dive to produce technology innovation that is useful and beautiful.

David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” overflows with brilliance, thanks to his intellectual virtuosity. He analyzes and dissects and constructs and destructs ideas like a hyper-cerebral Bruce Lee. His speech provides an unflinching description of the effort involved in “living a compassionate life,”

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Negotiating life is an arduous journey, slowed by frequent stumbling.

Simon Peres, The President of Israel, was the commencement speaker at my undergraduate graduation from The Ohio State University; I can’t remember a single word. I’m sure he said extraordinary things, but I was not yet ready to listen.

When I attended my friend Michele’s graduation ceremony at Ohio State in 2001 (she graduated six years after I did), Bill Cosby was the featured speaker. Cosby’s address was funny and wise, and I remember it quite well.

He told the story of his first visit home after starting college. Like every other college freshman, he was flush with the special (and fleeting) pride of being the burgeoning intellectual, eager to display his prowess. He told his grandmother he had been studying philosophy.


He explained, “Depending on perception, meaning fluctuates, resulting in profound uncertainty. For example, is that glass half empty or half full?”

Cosby’s grandmother dismissed his nonsense with an absolutely perfect retort, “Why, it depends if you are drinking or pouring.”

There are lessons to be learned in each moment, which is why wisdom can increase with age; we learn over time just how little we know.

Thus, we must resist the temptation to dazzled by our own intelligence or fooled by a seductive illusion, hoping, at best, we can make good choices, and that our mistakes will be forgiven.







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