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The Reading List: 5 great literary graduation speeches

Posted by Alex Pearlman  May 19, 2012 10:14 AM

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littlebook.jpgBy Tamar Zmora

There comes a time in every student’s life where they say, “That’s it. I’m done.” This moment is called graduation. But, what is a commencement without a speech?

The knowledge imparted over the last four years (or however long it took) wasn’t enough. Students and parents need, on average, an extra hour and a half to be talked at by a celebrity, famed journalist, dignitary, or entrepreneurial superstar. How else will you know your tuition went to good use?

As 2012’s graduates move forward into fulfilling careers... or, who are we kidding? The possibility of a first job at the local KFC-Pizza Hut-Taco Bell, unpaid internship, or living at home for a while is more realistic. Here is some advice from literary minds for all you graduates venturing into the unforeseeable future.

In 2008, Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling delivered Harvard’s commencement speech on the need to fail, learning from failure, and the value of imagination.

The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.

For a more comical take on the graduation speech, look no further than journalist/author, David Brooks’ 2011 commencement speech at Brandeis University in which he describes the winding 20s: the years of self-discovery, confusion, and nomadic wandering.

Some of the people who did really well in school will struggle in the next chapter of life, and vice versa. The average self-made millionaire in this country had a collegiate GPA of 2.75. Some of your friends who scraped by at the back of the class — be nice to them. In a few years you’ll have a new name for them: boss.

Back in 1991, “Wrinkle in Time” author Madeline L’Engle spoke to the graduates of Wellesley College about the difference between wisdom and intellect.

It is quite possible to be intellectual without any wisdom whatsoever, and this is always disastrous. And wisdom without intellect can be too otherworldly to be effective. It is when the two work together that true maturity can be realized. It is when the two work together that our wonderful minds can turn us towards truth. Intellect alone wants facts, provable facts; intellect working with wisdom can understand that truth goes far beyond and transcends facts.

Tom Wolfe, the man in the white suit, received an honorary degree prior to giving his speech at BU in 2000, and offered up his political musings.

It's the fact that we live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion - and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode. Let me give you an example: there's a very fashionable idea right now that each people, each culture, has its own integrity, has its own validity, which must be respected and must have its day in the sun. I don't think anybody will bother to argue with that. But what I think you're going to find fairly soon, as you head out into the world, are two things: first, that it's irrelevant, and second, that it leads to what I think of as "pernicious enlightenment."

After telling a humorous anecdote about finding the depth of a river in India and encountering crocodiles, historical novelist Bernard Cornwell offered Emerson graduates a piece of advice in 2010.

Listen to advice, but think for yourself. There are horrible dangers out there. There are even lawyers waiting for you.

With these grains of advice to guide you through the next chapter of formative years,
happy graduation and congratulations, class of 2012!

Photo by  » Zitona « (Flickr)

About Tamar -- I'm a recent Wellesley College grad with a degree in English and studio art. I grew up in the Midwest and briefly lived in Europe and the Middle East. My name is often mistaken for Tamara from "Sister, Sister." I love exploring coffee shops and am almost always highly caffeinated. I am very interested in films, the arts, theatre, painting, photography -- you name it -- '90s TV shows, and music.

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