The best advice to graduates: Be good citizens


It is the customary send-off for generations of students. Behold the wisdom, warning, and wit of the time-honored graduation speech.

Even though I was part of the cap and gown set when dinosaurs roamed, I still find myself gravitating to graduation speeches for inspiration. You’re never too old to learn, right?

Besides, those of us who are embarking on encore careers are increasingly among those waiting for diplomas at commencement ceremonies.

’Tis the season for pomp and circumstance and words to live by. Those who are receiving the degree and debt of higher education need all the encouragement and optimism they can get.

Not all luminaries who address graduating classes are equally memorable, but enough are noteworthy. They hook their audiences with humor and hard truth.

Comedian and faux politician Stephen Colbert told the University of Virginia’s Class of 2013: “You don’t owe the previous generation anything. Thanks to us, you owe it to the Chinese.”

Time magazine described young college graduates as “lazy, entitled narcissists who are part of the me, me, me generation,” Mr. Colbert said. “That’s very upsetting to us Baby Boomers, because self-absorption is kind of our thing.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who gave the baccalaureate address at Sewanee: The University of the South, informed his audience that “the daily activity that contributes most to happiness is having dinner with friends.”

“The daily activity that detracts most from happiness is commuting,” he concluded. “Eat more. Commute less.”

CBS News correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi cautioned University of Mississippi graduates to keep their eye on the prize or risk losing it to rivals. “Some will scream at you, others will say things behind your back, and a few feral animals will literally try to throw their stiletto heel in your lane and trip you,” she said.

Politicians would give the flag on their lapel pin to be the featured speaker at graduations. They can’t resist a podium and open mike from which to dispense platitudes mixed with political positions.

At Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg shared his expectations for the graduates’ 10-year reunion. They included a woman being elected president, same-sex marriage being legal, diminished effects from climate change, and education achievement gaps eliminated.

“So I leave you with the words I tell everyone,” declared the mayor. “Don’t screw it up.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, (D., Mass.) took a different tack with the graduating class at Framingham State University in Massachusetts. She drew from real life experiences to talk about being open to the unexpected and making room for the improbable.

After spending most of her career as a teacher, she never expected to get into politics. “I didn’t know anything about Washington politics,” she said, “and that suited me just fine.”

But Ms. Warren now represents the people of Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. “It’s been tough,” she said, “but all in all, it made me believe in the amazing power of trying the unexpected.”

Ms. Warren’s commencement pitch about preparing for what no one can predict is custom-made for the times. But topping my list of seasonal excerpts is something President Obama said to Ohio State University graduates.

Mr. Obama quoted former President George W. Bush’s address to OSU seniors in 2002: “America needs more than taxpayers, spectators, and occasional voters. America needs full-time citizens.”

President Obama acknowledged that civic duty might seem a quaint notion in a modern society “that celebrates individual ambition above all else” and in which technology allows people “to retreat from the world.”

But he told the graduates: “Your democracy does not function without your active participation. Citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but it leads to a better place.”

Most of us are content to do the bare minimum of participation in our government. We drag ourselves to the polls to vote for candidates nobody bothered to run against. Our collective indifference will be our undoing.

Graduates, glean what you can from your commencement speakers. But wherever you go, heed the call to action for engaged citizenship. If not you, who?

We’re all busy. But we’re all bound by the democratic ideals you will inherit and must act to preserve.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade. Contact her at: