The Vault Top 10 Commencement Speeches

by Vault Education Editors | May 15, 2009

  • My Vault

It's that time of year again: students preparing to leave their alma maters behind and head off into the great unknown, clutching a piece of paper that signifies the effort they've put in over the previous few years. Before they officially graduate, however, there's one last lesson most will hear: the commencement speech.


Throughout the history of graduations, there have been as many different types of commencement speech as there have been speakers: there have been rousing calls to action, personal stories, strings of amusing non-sequiturs, andwords that inspire self-reflection. The one theme that unites the best of them, however, is the memorable quality of the adviceand guidance they offer graduates for the years ahead. In honor of this tradition, Vault's editors have chosen--after much debate--what they feel are the best 10 speeches from the past century. Without further ado, then, here they are:

  1. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College, 2005

    But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, youcan choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-uplady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line--maybeshe's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nightsholding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybethis very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. whojust yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tapeproblem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course,none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible--it just dependson what you want to consider.

  2. Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941

    But we must learn to be equally good at what is short and sharp and what is long and tough.

  3. Steve Jobs, Stanford University, 2005

    If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on thiscalligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderfultypography that they do.

  4. Marc Lewis, University of Texas at Austin, 2005

    …there is going to come a time in your life when in order to succeedyou will have to trust--when you will have to make a big leap offaith--and when that time comes I hope you will swallow your fear andget into the wheelbarrow.

  5. Woody Hayes, Ohio State University, 2002

    [H]e virtually doubled food production in Ohio. On top of that, hegraduated thousands of youngsters. On top of that, he helped to feedhungry mouths all over the world. All because that old man back in Iowasaid, "Roy, if you'll go to Iowa State, I'll pay your tuition." That'spaying forward.

  6. Russell Baker, University of Connecticut, 1995

    Learn to fear the automobile. It is not the trillion-dollar deficitthat will finally destroy America. It is the automobile. Congressionalstudies of future highway needs are terrifying. A typical projectionshows that when your generation is middle-aged, Interstate 95 betweenMiami and Fort Lauderdale will have to be 22 lanes wide to avert totalparalysis of south Florida. Imagine an entire country covered withasphalt. My grandfather's generation shot horses. Yours had betterlearn to shoot automobiles.

  7. Jon Stewart, College of William & Mary, 2004

    If you see people in the real world making bricks out of straw andwater, those people are not colonial re-enactors--they are poor. Helpthem.

  8. Bradley Whitford, University of Wisconsin, 2004

    I am perpetually assaulted by examples of children, quadrupeds and awide variety of insufferable idiots who are, on occasion, capable ofacting beautifully. This fills my life with bitterness.

  9. TIE

    Fake Kurt Vonnegut, Internet Hoax Falsely Attributed to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1997

    Wear sunscreen.

    Real Kurt Vonnegut, Rice University, 1998

    How many of you have had a teacher at any level in your educationswho made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than youhad previously believed possible? Hold up your hands, please. Now takedown your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone sitting orstanding near you. All done? Thank you.

  10. John F. Kennedy, American University, 1963
    The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.

Filed Under: Education

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