Wallace is a bit Steinbeck-ian in his conclusions, that the capacity for independent thought is at the heart of all worthwhile human endeavor. This Commencement address, given at Kenyon College, has also been turned into a tiny lovely book. This is a legendary talk, for many reasons. My favorite passage: “The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
Mrs. Gorbachev joined Mrs. Bush as a speaker on this day, which, for anyone who grew up in the Cold War era, was miraculous. This momentous visit was not met with universal acclaim on campus, however, because Mrs. Bush was best known for being, well, Mrs. Bush. After four years of deep steeping at a college where one key message is that a woman need not be defined by a man she chooses to marry, this was a curious situation. Mrs. Bush’s speech that day was very well delivered, and very well researched, full of Wellesley-specific references that I only recently have come to realize are not common knowledge all the world over. It was also blessedly short, and it quoted Ferris Bueller. But when she noted, “perhaps someone in this audience will preside over the White House as the President’s spouse…” you could feel the tension rising in the audience. And then she concluded, with perfect timing, “…and I wish him well.” Talk about winning hearts and minds! Never have I heard a more perfectly delivered – or kinder, or more gracious – feminist statement.
“For those of you who have fond memories of Harvard’s Rev. Gomes, you will love hearing his incredible, distinctive VOICE. Surely it is one of the greatest gifts of our era, that we can record human voices to be heard long after their words have actually been spoken. And oh, my, this particular voice is deeply missed. “What will you have left when the things you don’t want happen and the things you learn here you forget? “You will have opportunities none of you deserve, but all of you will have to exercise those vital powers, and it is in doing all of that that happiness comes.” “Success is not to be confused with achievement.”
I have to admit, I did not know who Nipun Mehta was before I read this speech. And I’d never heard of the Harker School, either, though I’m assured that if I lived in Silicon Valley I would have. Anyway, it’s good. Really good. Here is the executive summary: from me-me-me to we-we-we.
If you are as big a fan of commencement speeches as we are, there’s a micro-site at NPR just for you: The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.