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All Talk: 58 Commencement Speeches Analyzed

Photo: L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

IT WASN'T ALWAYS WACKY: If sitting in the sun listening to someone drone isn't your thing, be glad you weren't around in Stanford's infancy. The 1898 commencement address had 12,671 words, more than four times the modern average.

By Sam Scott

It's graduation season, meaning pomp, circumstance and a whole heap of commencement speeches—a topic it's possible no one knows more about than Daniel Newark. As part of his doctoral research, Newark, '03, MA '11, dug up 58 Stanford commencement speeches from 1893 to 2009, documenting changes along the way.

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.

Kofi Annan
Photo: Rod Searcey
Former Secretary General of the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kofi Annan spoke in 2000.

How have speeches changed over time? Any theories on why?

At Stanford, speeches have gone from formal and even academic, to more personal and anecdotal. For example, early speeches tended to be given by Stanford professors or administrators. They had titles, [such as] "The Scientific Method and its Limitations" and "The Passing of Plato." Most speeches have mentioned current events, so each reflects its own time in that regard. Despite these changes, however, many themes have remained consistent. It appears the world has always been changing and challenging. Serving others has also been emphasized constantly. What are perhaps thought of as the most typical commencement speech messages—"follow your passion" and "failure is just a stop on the way to success"—are actually fairly modern. Their recent prevalence may have something to do with the increased tendency to have celebrities deliver commencement speeches.

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.

Sandra Day O'Connor
Photo: Chuck Painter
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, '50, LLB '52, spoke in 1982 and returned in 2004.

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.

Comments (1)

  • Mr. Michael Wright

    Robert Pinsky's address in '99 (which you can get on line pretty easily) is one of the best.

    Posted by Mr. Michael Wright on Jun 8, 2012 4:48 PM


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