Before shuffling across the stage for their diplomas and posing for photos on Grandma’s new iPhone, millions of graduates across the planet have to sit through commencement addresses. Generally delivered by a noteworthy public figure, commencement speeches are the most inspiring way to be told that though you may have spent six figures on a formal education, said education isn't what's truly important.
Of course, as our world changes, so does the advice given in it. Turns out that while some hard-won wisdom is evergreen, while other truisms have a shelf life. These dated graduation speeches hold up better in the past than they do in 2014.
Russell Baker, Connecticut College Class of 1995
“Have some children. Children add texture to your life. They will save you from turning into old fogies before you’re middle-aged. They will teach you humility.”
Writer Russell Baker's pro-kid stance was more good-natured than militant, but that's no reason to couch childbearing in moral terms. Nineteen years after his address, more young people than ever are childfree by choice. These people lead rich and fulfilling lives, all while managing to avoid old-fogiedom. Those who do have kids are having them later, so parenthood is hardly something to start planning on your Graduation Day. (Sorry, Princeton Mom!)
Lyndon Banes Johnson, Howard University Class of 1965
"As majority leader of the United States Senate, I helped to guide two of these bills through the Senate. And, as your President, I was proud to sign the third. And now very soon we will have the fourth--a new law guaranteeing every American the right to vote...The voting rights bill will be the latest, and among the most important, in a long series of victories."
Well, damn. That still sounds awfully good, doesn't it? So it's especially sobering to read LBJ's historic words half a century later, in the midst of major blows to voting rights across the country.
Voter ID laws now exist in 30 states and disproportionately restrict marginalized people's access to the polls, without any evidence that voter fraud is an actual problem. Grads, it's never too early to get engaged in politics and raise a stink whenever monsters in your legislature play fast and loose with democracy.
Bob Woodruff, Colgate University, Class of 2007
"At age 30, with a newborn child...I left my high-paying law job and took a position as a reporter in a tiny California town for $12,000 a year. I was awful at first, really bad. But I had found my passion: telling stories, covering current events, watching history. I always said to Lee, do what you love and the rest will come — the salary, the recognition, the satisfaction."
This is the sort of plucky, heartwarming tale that has passed the millennial generation by. Many of the tiny papers like the one that hired Woodruff in California have since become casualties of new media. In 1991, his $12 grand would be about $20 grand in modern money — and today, that job would be an unpaid internship.
Jane Lakes Harman, Smith College, Class of 2006
"Leadership is lonely — especially for women. You have to assume you won’t please everyone and will make enemies. Sadly, I have learned that women don’t always support each other."
The former U.S. Representative is right that leaders can't always expect to be popular, and the number of female leaders remain dishearteningly puny. But Harman criticizes competitive women without criticizing a culture that sees a limited place for them. Ambitious women are often pitted against each other because they are still regarded as novelties in the workplace. Never stop supporting other women! But let's not forget the larger issues that spark infighting in the first place.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Oglethorpe University, Class of 1932
"I believe that we are at the threshold of a fundamental change in our popular economic thought, that in the future we are going to think less about the producer and more about the consumer. Do what we may have to do to inject life into our ailing economic order, we cannot make it endure for long unless we can bring about a wiser, more equitable distribution of the national income."
If only! Yeah ... that didn't happen.