All Talk: 58 Commencement Speeches Analyzed
Photo: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service
By Sam Scott
Newark wrote about his research in the May/June issue of the magazine. We asked him for a little more information, including what his mind was on during his own commencement.
You studied 58 commencement speeches scattered over nearly 120 years. What drew you to the project?
I was curious about wisdom and attempts to impart it. What do people say when they try to say something meaningful about life in a formal setting? What impact does that message have on the intended audience? I was also curious about the distinction (if there is one) between wisdom and cliché. As for the biggest challenge, it was tracking down texts of speeches and getting them into electronic form.
If you could time-travel to see any one of them in person, who would it be and why?
I would either see one of the earliest speeches, just to witness life at Stanford in the 1890s, or I would see John Gardner's speech in 1991. Professor Gardner ['33, MA '36] often spoke eloquently about self-renewal, and for most of my 20s I kept one of his speeches in my wallet. I once tried to meet him as an undergraduate at Stanford, but by that time he was too sick to see students. By all accounts he was a wonderful human being.
On the flip side, does any speech stand out as one you're glad you missed?
One of the alumni interviewed for the project said that he would rather listen to Stephen Hawking read the Odyssey than sit through five minutes of his commencement speech again. I admire the intensity of his animus, but I don't think I share it for any of the speeches I read. I will say, however, that when you invite a politician to commencement, you risk getting a stump speech. And I don't think stump speeches make the best commencement speeches.
How have speeches changed over time? Any theories on why?
This year's speaker is Cory Booker, '91, MA '92, the mayor of Newark, N.J. Who was the first alum to give the speech? Is it now the norm to have an alum speaker?
I believe the first alumnus to speak at Stanford was President Ray Lyman Wilbur [Class of 1896, MA 1897, MD 1899], in 1921. Early on, most commencement speakers were Stanford professors or administrators. After World War II, the speakers were less connected to Stanford, until President [Gerhard] Casper's tenure in the 1990s, during which he made "connection to Stanford" a prerequisite. The exact nature of that connection is negotiable, however, and it doesn't have to mean an alumnus. Nor does it have to mean an alumnus who can single-handedly guarantee safety in case of fire.
Based on your research, any advice you'd give a future commencement speaker?
I don't have advice so much as sympathy and admiration. I think delivering a good commencement speech is extraordinarily difficult, and I admire anyone who gives it a sincere effort. Even if that effort leads to a boring or hackneyed speech.
You reported that just more than half of Stanford's Class of 2000 graduates remembered the theme of their speech. What do you remember about yours? (The 2003 speaker was Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, MA '72, MA '74, PhD '93.) Heat, champagne, subject matter?
I was definitely hot. I remember the enormity of the empty stadium behind the stage. Also, being Stanford, a group of students had released thousands of ladybugs during Wacky Walk, and they were making their way through the graduates.
You found that Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement speech had the highest percentage of first-person words of any of the speeches (6.27 percent). Just checking—you weren't including "iPhone" in the count, were you?
Nope. The iPhone hadn't even been released. It was a prehistoric time.
Do you have an all-time favorite commencement speech?
My tastes are always changing, but right now I enjoy both of Conan O'Brien's commencement speeches—the one he gave at Harvard in 2000 and the one he gave at Dartmouth in 2011. A primary challenge any commencement speaker faces is that wisdom often sounds like platitudes. I think this is less true when it is couched in humor. Also, it is difficult to impart wisdom for 20 minutes, so it helps if you can impart wisdom for two minutes and entertain the other 18. Each of Conan's speeches is about 90 percent apt local comedy and 10 percent wisdom (often delivered comedically). The ratio works for me, and I also happen to think he does both parts well.