Wisdom on the Cheap: When Graduation Speeches Go Viral

Novelist George Saunders's graduation speech has gone viral and will be published as a book. It's only the latest of several valedictory addresses to neatly package wisdom for the people.

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You can’t ever predict when a virus will strike, how exactly it will spread. So while it has been months since George Saunders gave his convocation address to graduates of Syracuse University – where he teaches writing – the speech didn’t go viral until last week, after it was posted on a New York Times blog. Now that millions have been infected, Random House has announced that it will publish the speech as a book, which will be called Congratulations, by the Way.

The speech itself is fine: neither the Marshall Plan (George Marshall’s “advice” to Harvard’s class of 1947) nor the do-good-be-well pablum routinely dispensed to masses of hungover 22-year-olds who want only to avoid having to work at Starbucks. The main argument Saunders (shown at right) makes is that we should be kind to one another, that life should “a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving.” W.H. Auden expressed the same sentiment with much more force when he declared, seventy years ago, “We must love one another or die.” But that’s probably not a fair comparison.

A comparison that is fair is to This Is Water, a graduation speech David Foster Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005, which Little, Brown published as a book in 2009, a year after Wallace committed suicide. The speech had been passed around by Wallace freaks for years before its cultural moment as proof that the man had soul. He had it in spades, as a matter of fact, as he spoke about the fight to “stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out” – a fight he was on the cusp of losing.

The inevitable overtones of death that haunt Wallace’s speech have their precedent in Randy Pausch’s “last lecture,” delivered by the Carnegie Mellon professor in September 2007, as he was dying from pancreatic cancer – a sort of macabre, untimely graduation of his own. Pausch told his students, “The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.” The lecture went viral; the book sold accordingly. (In another morbid turn, Pausch’s co-author for the book, Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, was killed in a car accident last year.)

The best graduation speeches are imbued with a sort of melancholy wisdom: from the “You’re not special” speech delivered by Wellesley High School teacher David McCullough in 2012 to Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” (another speech-to-book success story) to Mary Schmich’s famous 1997 graduation address-cum-column in The Chicago Tribune, which came to be known simply as “Wear Sunscreen” and was wrongly and rather hopefully attributed to Kurt Vonnegut.

The last of these was passed with febrile enthusiasm over what Schmich called "the lawless swamp of cyberspace" in the late 1990s. Since then, the epidemiology of the viral graduation address has evolved, with young people recording speeches on their smartphones and sharing them on social media, at precisely the instant in their lives when they are collectively hungry to be chastened and encouraged, when they are vulnerable and ecstatic, ready to both laugh and weep – hopefully, all by Conan O’Brien, the virality of whose 2011 commencement speech at Dartmouth was a foregone conclusion.

But it’s not only graduating students who yearn for the wisdom of the graduation speech; if that were the case, Random House would not be rushing Saunders’s book into print. We would all like wisdom; what’s more, we’d like it pithy and lighthearted and mercifully brief, something that can be perused on the smartphone between subway stops. The graduation speech is bite-sized philosophy, as readily consumed by a 22-year-old on the cusp of adulthood as by his 52-year-old father, stuck in an existential rut of his own, hemmed in by bank accounts and spreadsheets.

Wallace, at least, had a serious grounding in philosophy, as well as mathematics, not to mention the uncanny ability to address both topics in colloquial yet precise terms. But a lot of the so-called wisdom of viral graduation addresses isn’t much more sophisticated than what you might find on a refrigerator magnet. Saunders is urging old-fashioned niceness; O’Brien, sulking after a spat with NBC left him $33 million richer but without a show to call his own, told the coddled products of Hanover that “disappointment will come.” Are you sure, Conan? Because, see, Oprah Winfrey told Harvard graduates this year that “there is no such thing as failure.” 

We do not have time for philosophy, neither our own nor anyone else’s. Only a spoilsport would point out that nothing George Saunders said at Syracuse equals the valediction Socrates gives in his Apology. On the cusp of condemnation by his fellow citizens, soon to take that fatal draught of hemlock, Socrates (via Plato, of course), explains why he has corrupted the youth of Athens, striking a defiant tone: “and all day long I never cease to settle here, there, and everywhere, rousing, persuading, reproving every one of you.” This is hard stuff to understand, harder yet to act upon. And it isn't on YouTube, either.

Saunders by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP; Pausch memorial by AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar; University of Alabama graduates: AP Photo/Butch Dill

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.