10 Famous Commencement Speeches


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George Saunders at Syracuse University, 2013
George Saunders attends the "Reckoning With Torture" panel during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Fred Hayes/Getty Images

"Be kind."

If you remember nothing else of George Saunders' commencement address at Syracuse University in 2013, odds are he'd want you to know those two words.

"What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness," Saunders said. "Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded ... sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly."

Saunders is an English professor at Syracuse University and writer of short stories, including the collection "The Tenth of December." He can count his graduation speech-turned-book "Congratulations, by the Way," among his credits, too [source: Bosman].

The literary star said that each of us thinks we are the center of the universe and behaves accordingly. So the key to becoming less selfish was to "err in the direction of kindness."

"Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality -- your soul, if you will -- is as bright and shining as any that has ever been" [source: Enslin].

Author's Note: 10 Famous Commencement Speeches

I've been part of a few graduating classes and don't remember a single graduation speech given on those big days. Maybe it was the excitement or the heat (a lack of air conditioning in my college graduation hall left lots of people feeling woozy), but these addresses don't really stand out. Fast-forward to this assignment, and I found myself reading and watching graduation speeches. Steve Jobs' speech was particularly touching because I knew what he could not possibly have known at the time: the date of his death just a few years later.

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Sources

  • Alvarez, Justin. "Wear Sunscreen: The Story Behind the Commencement Speech That Kurt Vonnegut Never Gave." Open Culture. Nov. 11, 2013. (March 8, 2014) http://www.openculture.com/2013/11/wear-sunscreen-the-story-behind-the-commencement-speech-that-kurt-vonnegut-never-wrote.html
  • Bosman, Julie. "Graduation Speech by George Saunders to Become a Book." The New York Times. Aug. 7, 2013. (March 8, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/08/business/media/graduation-speech-by-george-saunders-to-become-a-book.html
  • Clymer, Adam. "When Presidential Words Led to Swift Action." The New York Times. June 8, 2013. (March 8, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/us/remembering-two-seminal-kennedy-speeches.html?pagewanted=all
  • Enslin, Rob. "George Sanders G'88 Delivers 2013 Convocation Address." Syracuse University. May 20, 2013. (March 8, 2014) http://asnews.syr.edu/newsevents_2013/releases/george_saunders_convocation.html
  • Gaiman, Neil. "Biography." (March 8, 2014) http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/About_Neil/Biography
  • Holy Cross. "Book Notes." (March 8, 2014) http://www.holycross.edu/departments/publicaffairs/hcm/spring00/booknotes/index.html
  • Holy Cross. "Commencement '98." 1998. (March 8, 2014) http://www.holycross.edu/departments/publicaffairs/hcm/hcsumm98/news/sum98_na1.html
  • JFK Library. "Nuclear Test Ban Treaty." (March 8, 2014) http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Nuclear-Test-Ban-Treaty.aspx
  • Kellogg, Carolyn. "David Foster Wallace's Kenyon Commencement Speech." Los Angeles Times. Sept. 19, 2008. (March 8, 2014) http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2008/09/david-foster-wa.html
  • Melathe, Alvin. "The Earth-Shatteringly Amazing Speech That'll Change The Way You Think About Adulthood." (March 8, 2014) http://www.upworthy.com/the-earth-shatteringly-amazing-speech-that-ll-change-the-way-you-think-about-adulthood-4
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  • MIT. "Real 'Sunscreen Speech' Author Sets Record Straight." Aug. 13, 1997. (March 8, 2014) http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/1997/sunscreen-0813.html
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