John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Commencement Speech as Reflection Tool

John N. Gardner

My wife and partner of many years, Betsy Barefoot, has been so good for me in that she encourages me to do many things with her that I would never have done without her. The list is too long to enumerate here but my commenting on this is occasioned by one of the things that I do with her that I wouldn’t do on my own: attend church (only with her). I was really glad I went on a recent Sunday for the “sermon” was really a commencement speech delivered by a just graduated high school senior who was headed off as a first-year student to the University of Chicago. This homily was delivered at All Souls Episcopal Cathedral in Asheville, North Carolina.

I am a veteran of this writing and speaking genre as I have delivered a number of commencement addresses. The most atypical of them was one I delivered a quarter of a century or so ago in a maximum security prison where the graduating class of seven students included several serving life sentences for murder. They were all students in the University of South Carolina’s “Prison College Program.” I could not tell them to “go forth”; nor could I tell them that higher education would, literally, “let them be free.” But most of the rest of my commencement talks have been of the more conventional form, to graduating college students. Every time I go to write one of these messages I find it a good time for personal reflection on the significance of this rite of passage in the larger context of whatever is going on in the country and world at that given time.

Most educators, of course, don’t get to give any commencement addresses, in the formal sense. Yet they could give them in many other contexts to students because they have so many opportunities to dispense wisdom, hope(s), dreams for their students.

I find myself writing blog postings more often that apply to the beginning college experience. But I also have extensive experience developing approaches for colleges and universities to use with departing students in what I came to call in my 1998 book, The Senior Year Experience, (published by Jossey-Bass).

The purpose of  this blog is to suggest simply as a reflection exercise for any educator the act of writing an outline at least for what you would say to students were you to deliver a commencement address. What do you want for them in life after college? What do you want them to think about their time in college? What kinds of questions should they be asking for their own reflection? What values do you want to espouse for them going forth? What do you want to say to them about the needs of our country right now and how higher education prepared them to meet those larger societal needs? What do you want to say to them about the larger individual and societal questions of purpose—individual and national?

And I don’t mean to apply the above questions just to students in the last phase of undergraduate education. I think these “commencement” themes are equally important for beginning students. More than ever I hope we are getting them to focus early and often, like voting in Chicago, on the most fundamental roles and purposes of higher education and how those connect to their individual roles and purposes. Is there anything more important that they could be preparing themselves for than making money and adopting for their total way of life the capitalistic value system that dominates now every aspect of American life? Yes, of course, it is important that they have jobs to repay their student loans. But what else are we preparing them for that might have meaning, value, and powerfully intrinsic self satisfaction. I believe our students are thinking about these things and I only hope we, their guides, mentors, provocateurs, are doing so commensurately.

I also recommend you take in a commencement speech now and then, real time, or simply by reading one—if not the whole text, the excerpts that are summarized in the press, particularly at this time of year. We need to maintain our own practice of active reflection if we are to have the greatest impact on our students.

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