The Inspirational, the Intimate, and the Inane

Spoken Word

Shortly after hearing of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’s untimely death last week, I began to see the same YouTube link posted over and over again on email lists and Facebook feeds: the video of Jobs’s 2005 Stanford University commencement address.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon,” Jobs said then, “is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” Given such a subject, it is hardly surprising that this speech is what we have turned to in making sense of a life.

We seem to take it for granted that graduation speeches should be personal, even intimate. It makes sense to us that only by trudging through the swamps of past experience can speakers come up with a generalizable set of maxims to share with the audience. We laud those speeches that are most intensely personal because they seem to resist the urge of spouting empty platitudes, of giving way to tired cliché.

This was not always the case. Such a standard of soul-baring, an expectation of frank confession, is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon—a shift in the podium’s purpose from instruction to inspiration.

American scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson, class of 1821, used his invitation to speak to Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society as an opportunity to propose an agenda for the American intellectual identity based on skepticism and individual inquiry.

Indeed, laying out a plan or theory would come to characterize the most significant commencement addresses of the 20th century. It is easy to forget that Winston Churchill’s most well-remembered phrase—“An iron curtain has descended across the continent”—was delivered in a 1946 graduation address at Westminster College in Missouri.

Barely a year later, Secretary of State George Marshall used his Harvard commencement address to present a strategy for European economic reconstruction and the United States’ role in it—articulating the main points of what would become the Marshall Plan.

In each of these cases, the emphasis remained firmly on the message. It was important to invite a speaker with the knowledge and experience to formulate a well thought-out lecture. Transmission of information then took precedent over personality.

Speeches are still sometimes valued for being informative, at least here at Harvard. Last May, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf discussed her administration’s goals for development; the year before, former Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter ’61 tackled the philosophy of constitutional interpretation.

And yet which speech has lingered in the memories of 2000 Harvard graduates—Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s nuanced exploration of contemporary globalization, or the self-deprecating humor of Conan C. O’Brien ’85’s Class Day address? Even Sirleaf’s address struck a balance between political discourse and personal narrative, as she discussed the obstacles she overcame to become Liberia’s first female president.

No longer are we content to depart from an intellectual institution by digesting one more intellectual argument. Today, the formulation of a national agenda like the Marshall Plan would be out of place. Instead we want a personality, someone distanced from academia, someone who can explain to us not what or how to think but how to live.

This can be a good thing. Intertwining speech and speaker allows for the specific sort of wisdom to which we simply don’t have access yet—the wisdom of age and experience, sharpened and personified by the act of public speaking. And refusing to separate speeches from their perpetrator helps cultivate an amicable skepticism. We can interpret a speech not in isolation but as part of a discourse, reflecting the ideas, perspective, and background that have colored the speaker’s intentions and beliefs.

But it is telling how much we hunger for a speaker who can delve into personal experience and emerge with a short tidy maxim, a take-home quote. With our generation’s nearly unlimited access to words spoken, sung, chanted, and proclaimed, we look to the commencement address to boil down the mass of information into something manageable—to make a stab at telling us what we really need to know.

So it is unsurprising that the language of many graduation speeches is so naturally disenchanting. Our society has long lost any sense of a single authority, a single truth. Attempts to proclaim one through this culminating ceremony of maturity can only ring hollow.

A response then, is to turn the speech around—to interpret the words within the context of the person forming them. Sifting through meaning in someone else’s life will, we hope, give us some kind of insight into our futures outside Harvard Yard. Hence the fascination over Jobs’s 2005 commencement address. Are these words what defined him? Are they what made his life worthwhile? And what relation can they have to our own?

—Victoria A. Baena can be reached at vbaena@college.harvard.edu.

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