Interpreters of the Era
Right away, commencement speakers have a profound challenge….
Ah, but let’s put our introduction on hold, for Tom Hanks, speaking of truth, has just raised the bar to magnificent heights (at Harvard on May 25):
Now back to what we were about to say….but how do you follow Hanks?
As humanity’s future becomes ever more challenging, many students feel that their parents’ generation has fostered almost irredeemable catastrophes, that we have failed environmentally, politically, morally, and spiritually. Even our air and water are threatened. Not to mention we continue to stockpile weapons that could radically alter life on Earth in minutes.
Clarion calls for environmental sanity, for example, from as far back as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold have proven real and prescient. As we lose bees, we destroy the cycle of life. As we heat glaciers, we flood our cities. As we burn coal, we breathe toxins.
Writer Toni Morrison was among the first commencement speakers to directly address the possibility of a diminishing rather than expanding future. At Wellesley College in 2004, she stated:
“…I’m not going to talk anymore about the future; because I’m hesitant to describe or predict; because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage a trois of political interests, corporate interests, and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future.”
Environmentalist Paul Hawken followed suit in 2009 at the University of Portland:
“You are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken.”
Professor E. O. Wilson in 2011 at the University of North Carolina added:
“… this is the time we either will settle down as a species or completely wreck the planet.”
We now confront nothing less than a planetary reckoning, a sixth extinction. Many forefront nonprofits, such as the International Rescue Committee (aiding refugees in crisis) and Ashoka (supporting systemic social change), essentially work at sustaining humanity’s viable existence on Earth.
So to the commencement speakers of 2023, interpreters of the era, the world is listening. Your voice, your unique message, must find traction, resonance and relevance well beyond the diminishing simplicity of bromides and platitudes. In these crucial years of human evolution, graduating students worldwide are of course eager to learn how they might best lead transformative change.
You have the magnificent, all encompassing job of helping analyze and clarify the challenges ahead.
As for the rest of us, may we re-visit these 35 deeply inspiring speeches with open hearts and minds, celebrating our constant commencements into tomorrow, finding new ways to participate in and encourage positive change, in all its many guises and incarnations. Though some of these addresses were given decades ago, they are as relevant as current ones, perhaps increasingly so — such as President John F. Kennedy in 1963 eloquently and passionately urging the world to embrace the very real possibility of creating worldwide peace.
~ Tony Balis
P. S. To set the tone, here’s a short, animated, music video by be-the-change rapper Nimo Patel (2017) that highlights the joys of moving from darkness to light.
The 35 Most Empowering and Inspirational Commencement Addresses Ever!
Jacinda Ardern (2022) Harvard University
Oprah Winfrey (2018) University of Southern California
Donovan Livingston (2016) Harvard Graduate School of Education
Michelle Obama (2015) Tuskegee University
Jim Carrey (2014) Maharishi University
Billy Kanoi (2014) Hawai’i Pacific Univeristy
Tim Minchin (2013) University of Western Australia
George Saunders (2013) Syracuse University
Barack Obama (2012) Barnard College
Neil Gaiman (2012) University of the Arts
Stephen Colbert (2011) Northwestern University
E. O. Wilson (2011) University of North Carolina
Meryl Streep (2010) Barnard College
Paul Hawken (2009) University of Portland
J. K. Rowling (2008) Harvard University
Barbara Kingsolver (2008) Duke University
Alice Greenwald (2007) Sarah Lawrence College
David Foster Wallace (2005) Kenyon College
Sir Ken Robinson (2005) Rhode Island School of Design
Steve Jobs (2005) Stanford University
Toni Morrison (2004) Wellesley College
Bono (2004) University of Pennsylvania
Wally Lamb (2003) Connecticut College
Martha Nussbaum (2003) Georgetown University
Russell Baker (1995) Connecticut College
Gloria Steinem (1987) Tufts University
Margaret Atwood (1983) University of Toronto
Ursula le Guin (1983) Mills College
William H. Gass (1979) Washington University
John F. Kennedy (1963) American University
George C.Marshall (1947) Harvard University
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1838) Harvard Divinity School