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What Not To Say at Commencement

Things We've All Heard Before and Would Rather Not Hear Again

By Daniel Choi

The class of 1994 has already started graduating from Colleges and universities across the country, and commencement speakers are already rehashing the same old cliches. As a warning to al Gore '69, Lani Guinier '71, and other speakers preparing speeches for Harvard's Class of 1994, I've made a list of commencement messages I do not want to hear.

Go out there and make a difference.

The most cliched commencement message ever. As Counselor to the President David Gergen told the graduates of the State University of New York, "People who are willing to get off the sidelines and get into the arena make the difference." "We have to be unafraid to say no and change what is unacceptable," said director Steven Spielberg to the seniors at the University of Southern California.

Happiness is not about money.

This time-Worn message came form none other than billionaire Ross Perot, who told seniors at Boston University that "Financial success and happiness are unrelated...I'm no happier today than I was as a boy in the Depression in Texarkana."

Value, values, values.

As Bob Dole declaimed to the graduates at the Citadel military academy, "we muts remember and teach the values that made America great--values like decency, honesty and individual responsibility."

Technology is changing everything really fast.

Speaking with the haunting voice of Darth Vader, actor James Earl Jones warned the graduates of New York University that they were facing "new worlds of technology so fast that if they don't throw you into a catatonic fit, they will challenge your imagination just to keep up, and threaten to overwhelm your ability to absorb it."

Stop and smell the roses.

Au Contraire to James Earl Jones, writer Kurt Vonnegut told the seniors at Syracuse University to slow down. "I had a good uncle named Alex, who said, when life was most agreeable--and it could be just a pitcher of lemonade in the shade--he would say, 'If this isn't nice, what is?'...Now, if he hadn't said that so regularly, maybe five or six times a month, we might not have paused to notice how rewarding life can be sometimes."

Meaningless metaphors.

Other commencement speeches are less coherent, relying on pretty metaphors rather than cogent messages. Speaking at the Juilliard School, Jane Alexander, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, made a hazy comparison between life and sailing. "You chart a trek where no one's sailed before," she said, quoting the poet Samuel Hazo. "You rig. You anchor Up. You said." A nice almost inspirational image, but not very useful advice to the Class of 1994.

And there are two commencement messages that are not yet cliche, but are becoming cliche pretty fast.

Political correctness sucks.

This was the gist of Arthur Schlesinger's recent commencement tirade addressed to graduate students at New York University.

The 'Generation X' message.

This one comes straight out of the movie "Reality Bites," Where Winona Ryder, playing the class valedictorian, sums up the languid angst of our generation: "The answer is...I don't know."

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman says that "I Don't Know" is the motto for the Class of '94, just as "Make Love Not War" was the motto for the Class of '69. What does "I Don't Know" mean? It's supposed to capture our sense of pessimistic uncertainty and the fact that we aren't afraid to admit it. "They see the world booby-trapped with unintended consequences," writes Goodman. "[W]hen asked about the future, this generation has the honesty to answer: 'I don't know.'"

This years batch of commencement speeches are like most commencement speeches: cliche, vague, effete, boring. Instead of serving up banal generalizations, I wish they would tell us something we don't know, maybe even drop a political bombshell like the Marshall Plan. They should offer some practical advice or, at the very least they should make us laugh for a couple minutes.

While impressive geopolitical strategies and witty banter are rare commodities these days, here's some graduation advice I would actually find refreshing:

Lower your expectations.

Don't expect to make any discernible impact on the world for at least the next twenty years.

Learn how to relax.

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