That Lame Commencement Address

On the clichés, Pollyanna-isms, platitudes, bromides, and cotton-headed nonsense masquerading as insight in the idea-starved, creativity-deprived world of graduation talks.

To say that commencement talks are clichéd is to engage in cliché itself; it is as profound an understatement as "Jessica Alba would prefer that Mr. Long not call her anymore." The feculent commencement talk is so undeniable that biologists may one day discover it is autonomic; it is as certain a rite of spring as allergies, Ivy League rejection letters, and the June discovery that your car's air conditioner needs repair priced somewhere north of extortion. The sanguine setups and panacean payoffs of the springtime address come as naturally to an American speaker of English as rabid animosity to a DMV clerk, and in a vocabulary as finite, cramped, and predictable as a linguist might collect from a schoolyard.

Show me a commencement address containing an original idea. Can’t be done. These vapid, molasses-speed addresses are so limited in scope and narrow in style that the canon may be completely categorized: 

  • The Story Without A Point
  • The Exhortation To Do Something Important That Never Gets Named
  • Vague Nonsense Lifted from a TED Talk
  • The Lesson About Hard Work From Someone Who Sits at a Desk
  • Non-Specific Demands to Change the World (e.g., “Be Mindful” and “Care About Others”)
  • The Authoritarian Impulse Presented As Caring
  • The “We Stand On The Shoulders Of Giants” Routine
  • Stuff I Wrote Down Last Night in the Hotel
  • The Straight-Faced Delusion That Everyone Here Is Going to Do Great Things
  • Political Self-Righteousness That Makes Half the Room Uncomfortable on a Day They Deserve to Enjoy
  • The Optimistic Portrait of the Future Overstated by the Rich Guy Who Will Be Fine Either Way
  • The Praise of Family Support Delivered Oblivious to the Plurality Who Had Little
  • Rank Hypocrisy Tolerated Because He’s a Major Donor
  • Rambling Improv From Famous Guy Who Imagines That’s Enough to Make Him Interesting
  • Ninety Seconds of Useful Stuff Stretched Out for a Half Hour
  • Metaphor That Goes Nowhere
  • Sanctimony
  • Stuff Mostly Cribbed From One Of Those Essays on a Chipotle Cup
  • Youthful Tech Start-Up Guy Who Didn’t Need College in the First Place and Wants You to Know It
  • The Thing That Happened to Me in an Exotic-Sounding Foreign Place Whose Importance to This Occasion I Will Never Make Quite Clear
  • Something About a Crossroads
Then there are the speaker types, from the senior-citizen-as-novelty-because-the-audience-is-young to the 20-something millionaire who thinks flip-flops on the dais make him cool. Not to mention the professionally lateral friends of those on the selection committee–hey, it's a free trip and a check! Also illiterate athletes and celebrity stunt-casting. That’s about it.

As filling as a cracker; as memorable as a sneeze. Death to the commencement address. Let’s start hiring DJs.

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