Commencement Speeches and Lifelong Learning

By Kathleen Strycula

With spring come daffodils, green grass, new growth, new beginnings—and commencement speeches. As the end of the semester approaches and graduation draws near, students look back and wonder how four years could have passed so quickly, while the commencement speaker looks forward to the moment when he or she will stand in front of hundreds of students. The nerves of the speaker may even equal those of the graduates anticipating the future, because the best recognize that they are becoming mentors to the students. They relate life skills and lessons learned over the course of their lives and from their lives, lessons they want to pass on to the next generation of learners and leaders.

In her commencement address at Harvard (2008), J.K. Rowling began by admitting, “I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that have expired between that day and this.” Commencement speakers have the freedom to speak on anything of their choice, but no matter how widely the content of their speeches differ, all share this fundamental aspect: they speak on what they have personally learned from their own lives through reflections, stories, or experiences. As Emerson observed in “The American Scholar” address given to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge (1837), “I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech.”

Often, we can fall into a habit of mentally separating academic years from “the real world.” There is the student life of academics—exams, papers, deadlines, working, writing, and thinking. On the other hand, there is the working world of a career—paperwork, nine-to-five hours, commuting, staff meetings, presentations, and more working, writing, and thinking. Coming up on graduation, students may begin to feel the divide between these two more and more, and commencement speakers often sense it as a part of their duty to bring meaning to the students’ education and relate it to life through their personal experiences. As David Foster Wallace observed in his Kenyon commencement address (2005), “The main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning. To try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value.”

However, liberal arts education and lifelong learning are a holistic approach that does not separate education and life, but understands them as two complementary halves. Returning once more to “The American Scholar” address, Emerson relates how “the mind now thinks; now acts; and each fit reproduces the other…Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think.” By pairing formal educational and life experience, commencement speeches offer an inspiring defense of the liberal arts. In George Saunders’ address at Syracuse University (2013), he spoke about the importance of and need for greater kindness after reflecting on the formative events of his own life. Jim Carrey recounted in his Maharishi University commencement address (2014) how he was inspired by his father to pursue his passion and become a comedian. In this way, the speakers’ lives become the testimony to support their words and beliefs.

Lifelong learning is, perhaps, the most important mission of Phi Beta Kappa. The initial understanding of this phrase might be to think of life as a length of time, and learning as something that continues even after academic studies. However, commencement speakers bring a new insight to this core Phi Beta Kappa value: we will be learning for life, but we can and should also learn from life. What have I learned from my life and experiences, and what can I pass on to others?—These are the questions commencement speakers ask themselves before giving an address. These are the same questions we can ask ourselves constantly. This is lifelong learning. 

Kathleen Strycula is a senior at the Catholic University of America majoring in psychology and minoring in studio art. The Catholic University is home to the Beta of the District of Columbia Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.