Monday, April 30, 2012

Why Graduation Speeches are So Vapid

Every year as we enter school graduation season the media starts throwing around op-ed pieces postulating things that graduating seniors 'should' hear instead of the drivel they will hear at commencement exercises. People start sending around emails of edgy commencement speeches from the past. Many of these do not check out, although; a few do.

I saw another of these predictable articles today and thought that it, like most commencement speeches I have heard, was utterly forgettable. I mean, who really remembers any commencement address they have heard?

A few details from some graduation speeches stick in my head. Such as when my son's scholarly friend that grows prolific and unruly red hair on his scalp and face made a remark at graduation about graduates learning to control their futures better than he can control his hair. I recall an elderly retired math professor speaking at my wife's university graduation about how a bushel of tomatoes settles on its way to market as each tomato goes from connecting on six points to connecting on eight points.

But honestly, who remembers much more than sparse details like this? I was the student speaker when I graduated with my masters degree. I worked that talk over and over. I practiced it again and again until I could deliver it reliably in nine minutes flat with just the right inflection. I felt like I did great delivering the speech. Yet I can only remember a little of what I said.

Paul Graham opines in this essay that public speaking is mostly about entertaining rather than informing. In fact, he suggests that most public speaking actually makes the audience dumber rather than smarter. He admits that it does, however, offer an opportunity to get to know the speaker better.

If commencement speeches are on the fast road to oblivion for most audience members (as well as most speakers), why do schools continue this exercise year after year?

The whole purpose of the graduation ceremony is to help students feel like they have accomplished some great feat and to provide a dividing line between learning and doing. These observances demark movement into the next phase of life. We fill them with serious sounding speech making to lend an air of dignity and authority to the occasion. (Although it seems like commencement exercises are becoming decreasingly dignified.)

In other words, commencement speeches are mostly for effect. They are not platforms for conveying actual wisdom. These addresses are filled with varieties of platitudes because that is part of the formula for achieving the desired effect. The way the speech is delivered is more important than its content.

I expect to attend many more graduation ceremonies during my lifetime. As I do, I will be watching to see how well the speakers match the occasion's desired ambiance. I won't be judging these speeches by the wisdom conveyed because I do not expect to be subjected to such sagacity at these celebratory events.

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