On Getting in the Way and Avoiding Cynicism: Excerpts From Graduation Speeches

June 09, 2014

Zainab Hawa Bangura, United Nations secretary-general’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, at Ursinus College: I was born in a village in Sierra Leone, the only child of a woman who had no formal education. I come from a traditional family in which men were the heads of households and women were considered their property. In my village, girls were not expected or required to go to school, but my mother insisted that I would not be denied an education because of my gender.

My father wanted me to be married at age 12, and when my mother refused he threw us out of our home and out of his life. My mother stood up against years of tradition and broke cultural norms because she knew that education was a golden key—a key that can open doors to a whole world of possibility and hope, or a key that can be used to lock people out of opportunities and confine them to a prison of poverty and marginalization.

By virtue of the schooling that I received, I am now considered the head of my family. When decisions need to be made, people in my village, both men and women, look to me. This is the transformative power of education—that in one generation a woman can go from being considered chattel to being in charge.

Deborah Bial, founder and president of the Posse Foundation, at Mount Holyoke College: You don’t have to be a revolutionary, but you should be brave. Eleanor Roosevelt was brave when she persistently spoke out both privately to her husband and in public about actions against humanity. Al Gore was brave when he began the very public fight more than a decade ago to educate the world about climate change and its consequences.

Their battles were no more important than the ones facing you in this audience. We need our best and brightest, you, to be fighting. It was not too long ago that it was a strange and uphill battle to defend a women’s right to autonomy, to a life of the mind, to full-fledged personhood.

Every single woman in this crowd of graduates today is someone’s hope for a better future, for equal pay, for a fair shot at the American dream. It is on you that we hang our hopes for a more just and reasonable society.

Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies, Columbia U., at Marlboro College: Education is not a matter of coercion or even persuasion, but always and only a matter of invitation. This is what a true college does: It puts in front of you an array of opportunities—whether in the form of literature or physics or microbiology or music or the arts or anything that can seize the heart and mind—in the hope that something will catch, something will change the orientation of your life, and set you on a path that you may never have imagined for yourself. No one can say what or when it will be, or that it will have happened with any clarity by graduation day (it often doesn’t); yet the true college is based on the faith that there is an incendiary capacity in every teacher and an inflammability in every student.

Joyce DiDonato, opera singer, at the Juilliard School: The world needs you. Now, the world may not exactly realize it, but wow, does it need you. It is yearning, starving, dying for you and your healing offer of service through your art. We need you to help us understand that which is bigger than ourselves, so that we can stop feeling so small, so isolated, so helpless that, in our fear, we stop contributing that which is unique to us: that distinct, rare, individual quality which the world is desperately crying out for and eagerly awaiting. We need you to remind us what unbridled, unfiltered, childlike exuberance feels like, so we remember, without apology or disclaimer, to laugh, to play, to fly, and to stop taking everything so damn seriously. We need you to remind us what empathy is by taking us deep into the hearts of those who are, God forbid, different than us—so that we can recapture the hope of not only living in peace with each other, but thriving together in a vibrant way where each of us grows in wonder and joy.

Jon Favreau, former director of speechwriting for Barack Obama, at College of the Holy Cross: I understand that cynicism can seem like a logical response to the daily flood of headlines about problems that can’t be solved and people who behave badly—the celebrities and CEOs and politicians of both parties who are supposedly driven only by ego and greed and personal gain. It is hardly original to point out that trust in major institutions has declined, as more of their mistakes and deficiencies are revealed and reported and endlessly analyzed. But here’s the truth: So long as institutions like government, media, business, and faith are created by human beings, with all our faults and imperfections, they will frustrate us. They will disappoint us. They will let us down.

Cynicism is one response to this reality. … But remember: Cynicism isn’t the only response to humanity’s inadequacies and limitations. Cynicism is a choice. It is just as much of a choice as service to others or faith in God. It is just as much of a choice as love—love that bears all things, believes all things, endures all things, hopes all things.

Bob Garfield, co-host of NPR’s "On the Media," at Albright College: President McMillan, Bishop Johnson, trustees, faculty, administrators, distinguished guests, families, and, most of all, graduates: I just can’t tell you how disappointed I am with you. It was at least three months ago that Albright announced me as your guest, and not a peep from you. Not a peep.

At Haverford College and Berkeley and Smith, students mounted furious protests, signed petitions, dispatched angry letters of demands to prospective speakers voicing outrage … and what do I get? Directions from the Turnpike.

Come on, did nobody Google me? Have I said or written nothing in 37 years as a journalist to offend your sensibilities and provoke righteous indignation? Oh, man. Do you have any idea what a disinvitation would have done for my profile? "Garfield Forced to Withdraw From Albright College Commencement: Views on ‘Veronica Mars’ Ignited Controversy."

A publicity bonanza, that would’ve been. But noooo, I guess one little administration-building takeover would have been too much trouble. 

Tony La Russa, former Major League Baseball team manager, at Washington U. in St. Louis: I can remember my first job as a manager. I was introduced to the fans this way, and the farm director said, "If you have heard that the worst players make the best managers, this guy has a chance to be an outstanding manager."

That night I had a decision to make about protecting a one-run lead and brought in a reliever, he gives up two runs and we lose. The farm director comes in, wondering about the quality of my decision. He says, "You may have been a better player than I thought you were."

John Lewis, U.S. Representative from Georgia, at Emory U.: In 1957, I met Rosa Parks at the age of 17. In 1958 at the age of 18 I met Martin Luther King Jr., and these two individuals inspired me to get in the way, to get in trouble. So I come here to say to you this morning, on this beautiful campus, with your great education—you must find a way to get in the way. You must find a way to get in trouble—good trouble, necessary trouble. …

As young people, you must understand that there are forces that want to take us back to another period. But you must say that we’re not going back. We made too much progress, and we’re going forward. There may be some setback, delays, some disappointment. But you must never, ever give up or give in. You must keep the faith and keep your eyes on the prize. That is your calling, that is your mission, that is your moral obligation, that is your mandate. Get out there and do it. Get in the way.

Adm. William H. McRaven, U.S. Navy, at U. of Texas at Austin: Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room and the first thing they would inspect was your bed. If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack—that’s Navy talk for bed.

It was a simple task—mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs—but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over.

If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.

Chris Regan, comedy writer, at Ithaca College: Last fall the United Nations released a study of world happiness and discovered that the United States ranked 17th. We are right behind Mexico—I’ve been there, lovely country, a lot of cartels.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are losing the fun race. How did that happen? We invented the La-Z-Boy, the hula hoop, the Hot Pocket. We are built for happiness, but we’re doing something wrong.

No one takes vacations. No one unplugs. Ours has become a nation of overwork and under-agreement. If you do relax, you then turn on the TV and see people shouting: shouting while pawning things, shouting while towing things, shouting while baking things, shouting while delivering the news. …

So I’m asking you—turn it around, Class of 2014. Save America! Do your part to make sure this wonderful nation doesn’t become a nation of sour, unhappy people. See what you can do to make the lives of the people you encounter a tad more pleasant. View anyone you meet first as a friend, and give them five minutes before they become a sworn enemy.

Ruth J. Simmons, former president of Brown University and Smith College, at Smith College: Universities have a special obligation to protect free speech, open discourse, and the value of protest. The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise. No collision-avoidance technology is needed here. The noise from this discord may cause others to criticize the legitimacy of the academic enterprise, but how can knowledge advance without the questions that overturn misconceptions, push further into previously impenetrable areas of inquiry, and assure us stunning breakthroughs in human knowledge? If there is anything that colleges must encourage and protect, it is the persistent questioning of the status quo. Our health as a nation, our health as women, our health as an industry requires it.