Monday, 19 May 2014


The tradition of college commencement addresses seems to be peculiarly American. The word "commencement" itself is used here in a uniquely American sense, equivalent to "graduation" in British English.  I suppose the idea is that you are about to "commence" your adult life; from here on in, the dress rehearsal, line-learning and costume-fitting is over, and the Real Thing begins.

Despite having somehow managed to accumulate several degrees (4.5 or thereabouts), I have never myself attended a graduation ceremony as I'm allergic to such formal occasions, so I'm not sure whether any speechifying generally takes place.  But I'm pretty sure there is no tradition here of writers or other prominent public figures being invited to deliver uplifting thoughts on Life, the Universe, and Everything to a congregation of freshly-minted graduates.

In America things are different, and a good commencement address can achieve a considerable afterlife of its own.  Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Neil Gaiman, Vaclav Havel and even Bono have all given addresses in recent times that receive millions of hits on YouTube.  You can even find a commencement "top ten" here.  I quoted a little while ago some words used in various such speeches to young adults given by Kurt Vonnegut ("If this isn't nice, what is?"), and there was an even more well-known -- but spoofed -- Vonnegut address that went viral in the 1990s ("wear sunscreen").

Not much call for sunscreen here...

Recently I read a piece in the always interesting Melville House blog on the commencement addresses of Wendell Berry.  I was particularly struck by this quotation, on the importance of what we would now call "localism":

What has happened here? By “here” I mean wherever you live and work. What should have happened here? What is here now? What is left of the original natural endowment? What has been lost? What has been added? What is the nature, or genius, of this place? What will nature permit us to do here without permanent damage or loss? What will nature help us to do here? What can we do to mend the damages we have done? What are the limits: Of the nature of this place? Of our intelligence and ability?
What an interesting set of questions to ask of the place you live!  What a useful way to orientate ourselves, in a world that increasingly encourages us to focus globally, which is, in effect, to ask us to focus on nowhere and nothing in particular.

Though, in the words of the fictional sunscreen address, this may be "advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young".

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