I wrote this column on June 1, 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, when finding the quoted commencement speech was especially meaningful--at least to me. And now, in 2010, it's further proof that some things just never, ever change. No, never. Not ever.
A Commencement Speech to Cheer About
I've always thought that a commencement speech must be the hardest kind of speech to make. People--the most important people, often with better things to do--spend hours writing speeches they know before they even begin speaking nobody is going to really listen to or, in any sense, believe.
All across the country, millions of graduates are hearing thousands of commencement speakers passing on the tried and true--"Reach for the stars!", "Hold your heads up high!" (which goes without saying if you're going to be reaching for stars) and, always, "Now go out there and show them the stuff Alfred E. Newman High (wait for applause) is made of!"
I've sat through so many of those speeches wishing the speaker, just once, would have the guts to say, "The world's a mess out there and I wouldn't wish this day on my worst enemy, but, as I've always said, better you than me."
And just last week, as if it had been planned, I found one. It was written by a famous writer and it was an imaginary speech written facetiously for a friend who was about to deliver your standard, canned speech to an auditorium full of graduates anxious to throw their caps into the air and be done with it. The writer suggested this speech, (excerpted) instead:
I suppose you think I'm going to give you one of those "You are going out into the world" speeches. Well, you're perfectly right. You are going out into the world and it's a mess, a frightened, neurotic, gibbering mess. And there isn't anyone out there to help you because all the people who are already out there are in a worse state than you are, because they have been there longer and a good number of them have given up.
You, my young friends, are going to take your bright and shining faces into a jungle, but a jungle where all the animals are insane. You are going from delinquency to desuetude without even an interlude of healthy vice. You haven't the strength for vice. That takes energy, and all the energy of this time is needed for fear. And what energy is left over is needed for running down the rabbit holes of hatred, to avoid thought.
The rich hate the poor and taxes. The young hate the draft. The Democrats hate the Republicans and everybody hates the Russians. No one can plan one day ahead because all certainty is gone.
War is now generally admitted to be not only unwinnable but actually suicidal and so we think of war and plan for war and design war and drain our nations of every extra penny of treasure to make the weapons which we admit will destroy us.
And meanwhile there is no money for the dams and the schools and the highways and the housing and the streets for our clotting and festering traffic. And that's what you're going out to. Going out? Hell, you've been in it for years.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could look at your world and say, and hear yourself--"This was once true but it is no longer true. We must make new rules about this and this. We must abandon our dear wars, which once had a purpose, and our hates which once served us."
You won't do it. It will have to slip up on you in the course of generations. But wouldn't it be wonderful if you could greet the most wonderful time in the history of our world with wonder rather than with despair?
The author of that imaginary but splendidly, acutely accurate commencement speech was John Steinbeck. He wrote it in 1956. Makes you wonder what kind of merry-go-round we're on, doesn't it? And who's going to make it stop?