While the season isn't over — commencement speakers ranging from author Atul Gawande at Caltech to filmmaker-of-the-weird David Lynch at the Maharishi University of Management have yet to address 2016's grads — it's starting to wind down. Below, a look back at a few of the best speeches this year that you might have missed amid all the pomp and circumstance.
William Foege, epidemiologist and former Centers for Disease Control director, Emory University, May 9
An epidemiologist who was a key architect in the effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, Foege's speech to Emory's graduates, titled "Lessons I am Still Desperately Trying to Learn," would seem like standard commencement fare if it weren't so eloquently written and delivered. With 10 life lessons he divides into "chapters," saying "it took me 80 years to write this talk," Foege says he's realized the reason colleges give commencement talks is "the university can't stop. It tries to the end to teach."
Best passages: "Every day we edit our obituaries. Sophocles said, 'It’s not ‘til evening that you may know how good the day has been.' And it’s not until you get to be my age that you know how good a life has been. But consciously, daily edit your obituary so you realize that sooner. Edit with care and gusto."
"We like to feel we are civilized. How do you measure that? The usual versions look at science, technology, wealth, education, happiness. Every measure fails, except one. There is one measure of civilization and it comes down to how people treat each other. Kindness is the basic ingredient."
Maria Popova, founder and author of Brain Pickings, Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, May 15
Popova, who has been called "the mastermind of one of the faster growing literary empires on the internet" by the New York Times, is the author of the popular literary blog Brain Pickings, where she offers everything from thoughtful reviews of books to beautifully designed infographics about famous writers' sleep habits. As someone who writes often about advice from writers, thinkers and speech-makers — see below — Popova shared some beautiful, uplifting wisdom of her own.
Best passages: "Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that, too, is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine, and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that. In its passivity and resignation, cynicism is a hardening, a calcification of the soul. Hope is a stretching of its ligaments, a limber reach for something greater."
"You may find your fate forked by construction and destruction frequently, in ways obvious or subtle. And you will have to choose between being the hammer-wielding vandal, who may attain more immediate results — more attention — by tearing things and people and ideas down; or the sculptor of culture, patiently chiseling at the bedrock of how things are to create something new and beautiful and imaginative following a nobler vision, your vision, of how things can and should be."
Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, Scripps College, May 14
Albright became a controversial speaker choice, called out by students and faculty as a "war criminal" and denounced for her suggestion that "there's a special place in hell" for women who don't support Hillary Clinton. (A comment she later called "my undiplomatic moment" in an op-ed.) Yet her speech has been called — by Popova, above — "an astonishing lesson in courage, dignity, integrity and transformation under the unlikeliest of circumstances." After the class valedictorian included an allusion to the "special place in hell" comment, Albright responded with complete grace, starting her speech by saying "there is a special place in heaven for anyone who speaks truth to power."
Best passages: "Truth can be a blunt instrument and, at times, a dangerous one. In some countries, even in our era, bearing witness to the abuse of authority can put truth-tellers in prison — or worse. It is also possible to be completely convinced that something is true and at the same time, completely wrong. There are people in our world today who are ready to die — or kill — for alleged truths that are grounded less on the validity of their insights than on the false certainty generated by their resentments and fears."
"To me, this is the great divide in the world today — not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between any one race or creed and all the others, [but] between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all. ... The challenge for our leaders is not to eliminate the diversity of these perspectives — for that is not possible. The challenge is to manage them — and when necessary, moderate them — so that we are not defined primarily by what keeps us apart."
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Pulitzer-Prize winning director of "Hamilton: An American Musical," University of Pennsylvania, May 16
Miranda, whose smash Broadway hit was recently nominated for a record-setting number of Tony Awards, needs little introduction. He has been everywhere lately. But his speech, in which he dropped beats from "Hamilton," made "Harry Potter" references and told deeply personal stories about his own life, is still one worth hearing.
Best passages: "Your stories are essential. Don’t believe me? In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done."
"My dear terrified graduates, you are about to enter the most uncertain and thrilling period of your lives. The stories you’re about to live are the ones you’ll be telling your children and grandchildren and therapists. They are the temp gigs and internships before you find your passion. They are the cities you live in before the opportunity of a lifetime pops up halfway across the world. … There will be blind alleys and one-night wonders and soul-crushing jobs and wake-up calls and crises of confidence and moments of transcendence when you are walking down the street, and someone will thank you for telling your story because it resonated with their own."
David Gergen, co-director of the Center for Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Elon University, May 21
Gergen, a presidential adviser to four presidents and well-known CNN political analyst, veered from the usual commencement script with a speech that offered a strong call to action over "the deepening concerns that I and many others have about the future of North Carolina, our beloved state." A native North Carolinian, Gergen spoke directly about not only the "bathroom bill" controversy, but other changes, such as voting rights and cuts to school funding, made by the Republican-controlled state legislature.
Best passages: "I would like to depart from the tradition of showering you with personal advice. Instead, at the risk of offending some of you, I want to talk about the deepening concerns that I and many others have about the future of North Carolina, our beloved state. ... Enough is enough. For those of us who have stayed on the sidelines, it is time to stand up and be counted. It is time to raise our voices against this darkness. Indeed, it is time for fellow citizens of all stripes — white and black; young and old; native and newcomer; men, women and people of chosen gender, everyone — to join forces and preserve the best of who we are as a people. ... It is said that the arc of history bends toward justice. Indeed, it does, but it won't get there without a shove."
"Let me emphasize that at heart, our differences are not Democrat vs. Republican nor liberal vs. conservative. Please remember that the governor of South Carolina who lowered the confederate flag is a conservative Republican. The governor of Georgia who vetoed a transgender bill is a conservative Republican. The governor of Oklahoma who yesterday vetoed a bill that would criminalize abortion is a conservative Republican. No, the real differences here are between moderates vs. extremists, between those who want a better life for all citizens vs. those who want to go back."