The task of the commencement speaker is a curious one. After all, what can students learn inside of an hour that they have not learned over the long haul of four years? Cartoonist Garry Trudeau once said “Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.” Another humorist, the late Art Buchwald, told the 1993 graduating class at the University of Southern California that “I could have said something profound, but you would have forgotten it in 15 minutes—which is the afterlife of a graduation speech.”
Still, the show must go on in spite of its rich potential for inducing boredom. Intrepid speakers attempt to say something wise, maybe even memorable. The elements of their presentations are well established: references to the impending future, the inevitable challenges of life, the need for perseverance, the sweet smell of success, the importance of character, the brevity of life, and, these days, the solemn duty to care for the environment.
Commencement speeches themselves may have a short afterlife, but some are remembered, if only for the aphorisms they contain. Arnold Schwarzenegger couched his common-sense advice in an imaginative way: “Just remember, you can’t climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets” (University of Southern California 2009). Ray Bradbury emphasized the importance of individual initiative: “I never went to college—I didn’t have enough money—and I decided I was going to be a writer anyway” (Caltech 2000). Others cautioned graduates about worldly goods: “You will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse,” quipped Denzel Washington (Dillard University 2015), a theme echoed by Stephen King at Vassar in 2001: “What will you do?” he asked. “Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you.”
The Dalai Lama emphasized the practicality of maintaining a good outlook: “Despite [life’s] difficulties, always keep optimism. ‘I can overcome these difficulties.’ That mental attitude itself will bring inner strength and self-confidence” (Tulane University 1993). George W. Bush incorporated several of the obligatory themes in offering the following advice to the graduates of Calvin College (2005): “The future success of our nation depends on our ability to understand the difference between right and wrong and to have the strength of character to make the right choice.”
One of my very favorite commencement-speech gems belongs to Alan Alda. It is short and sweet and brimming with hard-nosed realism: “You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition” (Connecticut College 1980).
If most commencement speeches, even those delivered by celebrities, are less than memorable, they are noble in intent. Such is the tradition. However, a certain young woman named Paxton Smith presented a commencement address this year to her fellow graduates at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, Texas, that broke with tradition. She did not stress the importance of character or moral values, but rather the need for access to legal abortion. Abortion must be an option, she insisted, because an unwanted child can hamper one’s future and thereby ruin one’s life. “I have dreams, hopes, and ambitions,” she said. “Every girl here does. We have spent our whole lives working towards our futures, and without our consent or input, our control over our futures has been stripped away from us. I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail me, that if I’m raped, then my hopes and efforts and dreams for myself will no longer be relevant.”
Actress Michelle Williams openly credited her abortion for enabling her to continue acting and subsequently win a Golden Globe Award. In her televised acceptance speech, she presented herself as a role model for all women today who thirst for success. Afterwards, some feminists, overcome by emotion, nominated her as America’s next president, an action young Paxton Smith would likely applaud.
Omitted from Ms. Williams’s speech were two critical points. First, what should be apparent is that we are not guaranteed a future. The future is not something we own or even have a right to experience. Roughly 500,000 Americans have lost their lives due to the Covid-19 virus. Where is their future? We are not autonomous beings, and, while our lives are in God’s hands, on earth we are finite creatures subject to chance.
Second, it is contradictory—and hubristic—to speak of the critical importance of one’s own future while at the same time denying any future to the aborted child. Such an attitude represents a violation of the Golden Rule: Those who choose abortion for their child would not have chosen it for themselves.
Ms. Smith delivered her address in the context of these two delusions: that she is autonomous and that a child would spoil a future to which, realistically, she is not entitled. It is most unfortunate that an ideology which does not correspond to reality can have such a powerful effect on young minds. Life is difficult. Death is like a thief in the night. That a woman can bring a new life into the world is her glory. Consider the curse that King Lear imposes on his daughter: “Hear, Nature, hear! Dear goddess, hear! Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend to make this creature fruitful. Into her womb convey sterility; dry up in her organs of increase; and from her derogate body never spring a babe to honour her!” (Act 1, Scene 4, 272-280).
Let the typical commencement speech continue to be boring and forgettable, as long as it represents noble ideas. But let it not propagate the delusion that the future of the graduates is safeguarded by their access to legal abortion and their willingness to kill their child.