Five Inspiring 2013 Commencement Speeches You Need to Hear
With graduation season wrapping up, here are five people who delivered brilliant and inspiring commencement speeches from 2013.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke kept the format simple and listed 10 lessons he's learned throughout life in his speech to graduates of Princeton University. Bernanke's lessons range from simple suggestions (call your parents) to deeper, more opinionated insights into policy making and political science ("cynicism is a poor substitute for critical thought and substantive action"). Yet the real kicker in Bernanke's speech comes with lesson number three—he begins to channel his inner John Rawls as he deconstructs the notion that a system which uses merit to determine a personal and financial success is a fair system:
A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others.
Note: her speech starts at the 35:00 minute mark.
Writer Toni Morrison delivered her commencement speech at Vanderbilt University. Whereas Bernanke basically read a list, Morrison laid out a paced, meticulous narrative of the human experience—a history "soaked" in money ("the not-so-secret mistress of our lives") and greed-inspired violence.
Where does salvation lie in such a chaotic world? Morrison says hope manifests itself in the intuition to do good and create art. She also emphasized the importance of appreciating our dependence on other people:
"We owe everything to others. We owe others our language; our history; our art; our survival; our neighborhood; our relationships with families and colleagues; our abilities to defy our social conventions as well as to support our social conventions."
Congressman John Lewis reflected on his formative years and the fight against segregation during his commencement address to The Jewish Theological Seminary. "You must go out and find away to get in good trouble, in necessary trouble," he told graduates. "You must play a role in helping to make our country, of helping to make our world a better place."
A few minutes in, his delivery becomes electrifying.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
"In the years since we've landed on the moon America has lost its exploratory compass," lamented astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in his speech to Rice University graduates. Like Morrison, Tyson structured his speech around an overarching narrative; ever the space enthusiast, Tyson outlined the history of American space exploration, its roots in the Cold War and its impact on the environmentalist movement.
Best part of the speech: around the 11:30 mark, Tyson starts talking about the Apollo 8 crew snapping a photograph of Earth, which shows to humanity what the world actually looks like from the outside. And Tyson argues that such a photo conveys a cosmic truth about what matters (nature) and what doesn't matter (borders) with regards to our planet.
"There was earth not with color-coded countries. There was earth with oceans, land, clouds."
The Dalai Lama
The 14th Dalai Lama spoke at The Superdome in New Orleans to graduates of Tulane University. There, the Dalai Lama outlined some of the basics of the overarching philosophy he's developed over the years—that happiness is the purpose of all life; that human affection has innate, biological roots; that the pathway towards a meaningful life lies in caring for other people. He also stressed the importance of cooperating in solving "man-made" problems:
"Many of these problems are actually our own creation... therefore, we must have the ability to overcome these problems."
His speech starts at the six-minute mark. Listen to the echo that trails his voice!