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Commencement season is in full swing across the country: in my little village on the northern California coast, a friend’s son gave the valedictory speech for his middle school with all of his admirers, including me, cheering him on. The next day, I attended the graduation ceremony for the five graduates of our local charter school, three of whom delivered “valedictories.” We were outdoors, looking through redwood trees out to the Pacific Ocean, and the young graduates had a theme: gratitude for the families and friends who had supported them to this point.
Commencement at Stanford isn’t for another few days when graduate and legendary tennis star John McEnroe will address the graduating class. I won’t be there in person to hear McEnroe, though I will tune in to see/hear the address later. In the meantime, I have been tuning in to some of this year’s commencement speeches, as I always do this time of year, and I’ve noted some recurring themes.
One of these is the importance of listening—to yourself as well as others—that came up in speeches by host, producer, and author Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State); actor Sterling K. Brown (Washington University); former Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker (Bentley University); and former Senator Liz Cheney.
“When you get yourself quiet enough to listen, I mean really listen, you can begin to distill the still, small voice, which is always representing the truth of you from the noise of the world.”
“For me, the goal of higher education is the same overriding goal I have for my life. And that is to become the best next version of myself. And you’re the only one who can know what that is—if you give yourself the time and the space to listen to what is already inside of you.”
Winfrey and Brown are urging grads to listen—really listen—to their best inner selves, but Baker reminds them that it’s important to listen to other people as well:
“This whole thing about listening . . . it’s real. My mom was a Democrat, and my dad, who is now 94, is a Republican . . . Growing up, the dinner table at our house was a constant conversation. I had friends who lobbied to come by just to watch. Nobody’s motives were questioned when my mom and dad went back and forth on the issues of the day. Nobody threw anything. But people had plenty of opinions. There was only one rule. You had to listen more than you spoke. And when you spoke, you had to demonstrate some appreciation for what the other person was saying.”
And finally, Senator Liz Cheney:
“America cannot remain a free nation if we abandon the truth. So as you go out to change the world, resolve that you will stand in truth. Those who are trying to unravel the foundations of our republic. . . know they can’t succeed if you vote. So, Class of 2023: get out and vote. This means listening and learning, including—especially, from those with whom we disagree.
Of course, many other themes are being sounded as well, from Academy Award-winning actor Michelle Yeoh’s advice to Harvard Law grads to value collaboration over competition: (“For every winner, there doesn’t have to be a loser. In fact, most success stories are less about competition and more about collaboration . . . The truth is, I could not have done any of this alone.”) to Senator Raphael Warnock’s challenge to Bard College grads to “find your passion” and then to speak out about it (“I challenge you to find that thing in the world that feels like such a deep moral contradiction that you cannot be silent. You have to express yourself; you have to stand up and try to make the world better.”)
As I have read and listened to these speeches, I’ve thought they would make an excellent basis for an analytic writing assignment. Students could learn a lot by reading and/or listening to, say, ten or twelve of this year’s commencement addresses and then looking for patterns and themes, for similarities and differences in content, in style, in delivery. Such an assignment would work well done in pairs or small groups. Or students could emulate Bill Gates’s 2023 address to the graduates of Northern Arizona University, in which he writes the commencement address he wishes he had heard. The results of such assignments might come in many genres, from a traditional print analytic essay to multimodal presentations, from spoken word or hip hop to visual and verbal collages—all ways to explore their own futures.
Congratulations to all this year’s grads, whose college careers have been marked by pandemic pressures and so much more. And congratulations to all the teachers of writing who have stood by them.
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