Introduction to our commencement archive…

Interpreters of the Era

To begin, actor Tom Hanks raises the bar for empowering commencement speeches, at Harvard University on May 25 of this year:

(This is the text of Hanks’s speech)

The Humanity Initiative has been reviewing commencement speeches since 1989. Here are some introductory thoughts on the planetary reckoning of the last few years:

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.

Climate change is perhaps the easiest example. Clarion calls for environmental sanity from as far back as Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold in the 1960’s 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. In one area in particular, the environment, humanity urgently has to decide what we are, what we wish to become, and where we are going. And that is especially true for the way we relate ourselves to the rest of life. And we better do it soon.

Humankind now confronts 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 2024, interpreters of the era, 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 must be tuned to transformative change.

You have the magnificent, all encompassing job of helping analyze and clarify the challenges ahead, of measuring the future.

As for the rest of us, may we re-visit these 35 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 help set the tone, here’s a short, animated, music video by be-the-change rapper Nimo Patel (2017). It highlights the joys of moving from darkness to light...

36 Empowering and Inspirational Commencement Addresses, 1838 – 2023

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

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