Commencement speeches

As commencement ceremonies sweep across the land — Stanford’s isn’t until June 17th — people begin to reflect on the speeches that grace these events (Newark mayor Cory Booker is this year’s speaker at Stanford). In the latest (May/June) issue of Stanford magazine, Daniel Newmark looked at the history of these speeches, in

Speak, Memory: How have commencement speeches — and their effect on graduates — evolved over the years?

A handy table of stats:

(Love the first-person words count. If “first-person words” include both 1sg and 1 pl pronouns (in all their forms), then Jobs’s figure is at the low range of the counts that Mark Liberman got for presidential inaugural addresses: Clinton 1, 8.63%; Clinton 2, 6.47%; GWB 1, 7.90%; GWB 2, 4.89%; Obama, 6.69%. If you look only at 1sg pronouns, then Obama (0.21%) is at the bottom of the list, with GWB 1 at the top (0.94%), virtually tied with Clinton 1 (0.93%); and if Jobs’s figure of 6.27% is for 1sg pronouns only, then he was an incredibly heavy user of the 1sg.)

But, Newmark notes:

Summary facts alone cannot convey the poignant anecdotes, humor, insights and wisdom that Stanford’s commencement speakers have shared throughout the decades. For example, in 1992, the late Kirk Varnedoe, MA ’70, PhD ’72, began his speech:

I work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This means that every morning I leave my home and the normal world of daylight and humdrum street life, and enter another kind of world, where traditional ideas of space are radically compressed or eliminated; where wild deformations of imaginative passion transform human faces into unnatural masks of anxiety and alienation; where time itself seems to be warped; where lost dreams of machine technology that date to the Russian revolution collide with assemblages of old cans, spattered paint and the displaced, chaotic detritus of our times . . . and then I get off the subway and go into the museum.

Varnedoe is much missed.

One Response to “Commencement speeches”

  1. Ellen Says:

    Okay, that Varnedoe opener made me laugh. :-)

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