There might not be a more universally feared and derided form of communication than the commencement address. Every spring, individuals of various altitudes of notoriety and self-awareness have to stand in the heat talking to the legions of the sunburned and the hungover, charged with inspiring them in (preferably) 30 minutes or less.
I actually count myself as lucky in that two of my four commencement addresses — high school, college and two for graduate school — were quite good. I credit this to two factors: one, an unexpected topic with an unapologetic challenge; and two, an excellent distillation of a life lesson.
When I graduated from Notre Dame in 2004, our commencement speaker was Justice Alan Page ’67, a man who has managed to be both a “Purple People Eater” and judge in the same lifespan. He could have limited his speech to memories of a great football career or climbing the ladder, but wide portions of it were about the intransigence of racial problems in his country.
Page talked about how some schools were becoming re-segregated, the importance of affirmative action to eliminate the reverberations of past discrimination, and the legions of reports that show minorities getting worse results than others in the American justice system.
“There is something fundamentally wrong when our judicial system, the one branch of government designed to protect individual rights, persistently denies equal justice to communities of color,” he said.
Sitting in the Joyce Center that day, I found Page’s comments to be remarkable — perhaps even brave. I came to Notre Dame from a public high school in Maryland, and I often found the monochromic nature of campus to be challenging. Telling a Notre Dame audience that race was still a problem in America felt like something of a wake-up call, and he was unapologetic in asking for each us to take responsibility for it.
“As Notre Dame graduates, we are among the privileged few. As such, I believe we have some obligation to work to improve the lot of those who are less fortunate,” he said. “Grabbing what we want for ourselves and ignoring everyone else is simply not acceptable. We can use the magic of this place to do good.”
I liked those words then, and I like them even more now. Graduations need an explicit challenge. Degrees, especially from a place like Notre Dame, are not the end; they are the means to an end, and should be treated as such.
The second address was in 2005, by the late author and journalist David Halberstam at the ceremony for journalism graduates at Columbia University. His speech came at the end of a really tough year for the 300 of us — long days and nights of trying to get New Yorkers to talk to us for nothing but the reward of appearing in homework assignments, emotional exhaustion from tasks like interviews with convicted murderers, the eye-popping loan loads, and an industry just starting to implode with vigor.
For tired writers, his talk was a masterpiece of inspiration, taking us through his early years and how the essence of being a journalist was more rewarding than any amount of money or fame.
“For fifty years, I have been paid to go out and ask questions. What a great privilege to be a free reporter in a free society, to be someone whose job is a search for knowledge,” he said. “What a rare chance to grow as a person.”
Then he shared an anecdote about his reporting in Vietnam, when military brass tried to intimidate journalists into silence. His advice to us was stark, and reassuring.
“Never let them intimidate you,” he said. “Never. If someone tries, do me a favor and work just a little harder on your story. Do two or three more interviews. Make your story a little better.”
The strengths of these addresses are connected. Collectively, they say that you have an obligation to make the world better, and you cannot be scared to do so. It’s not needless nostalgia or self-aggrandizement; it’s truth.
And that’s the only thing that has a chance of cutting through a hangover.
Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine.