As college comes to a close for this year’s seniors, what final words will inspire students? Most commencement speeches try to empower students to do great things, leave their mark on the world, achieve their dreams, etc. But, are we asking too much of today’s students? And perhaps we should be relaying a different message—one that takes into account the unique challenges and realities facing this generation of students?
NPR commentator and former J-school professor of mine, Charles Wheelan, suggests an alternative approach to the traditional commencement speech in his latest article, “College Grads, please don’t hurt us” http://www.marketplace.org/topics/life/commentary/college-grads-please-dont-hurt-us).
With a playful headline and peculiar advice to students, “I’m not asking you to cure cancer. I’m just asking you not to spread it,” Whelan isn’t completely serious about deterring students from aspiring to greatness. But he makes an interesting point. Rather than tell students that they can and should change the world, Whelan reminds us that changing the world can include things like “skirting financial regulations, obscuring climate change research, designing subprime mortgages that low-income families will not understand and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children.”
Whelan’s message is simple: if you lead a life with purpose, however you define it, you will find happiness.
High school English teacher, David McCullough, also took a detour from the traditional commencement speech with his much talked about address to the graduating senior class of Wellesley High School: (http://www.theswellesleyreport.com/2012/06/wellesley-high-grads-told-youre-not-special/). With an overall message of “you’re not special,” some call his speech discouraging to students; others call it refreshing. “We’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs…but do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
People have been labeling this generation all sorts of things—from entitled to lazy to overly nurtured—but CIRP research shows other characteristics of this student population. These students are studying more in high school and partying less; they’re challenging themselves academically; and they are focused on using their college degree to get a job (see the CIRP freshman survey results here: http://heri.ucla.edu/pr-display.php?prQry=88). A great commencement speech—in addition to being inspiring, poignant and funny, takes these things into consideration too.