Yet politically charged commencement speeches are nothing new. Winston Churchill uttered his famous “Never give in,” at England’s Harrow School in 1941. George C. Marshall unveiled the Marshall Plan at Harvard University six years later. And Canada’s Governor-General, David Johnston, remembers watching U Thant, the Burmese secretary-general of the United Nations, speak of rebuilding peace in the world at his own Harvard commencement in 1963, mere months removed from the Cuban missile crisis.
“[It] addressed the things that concerned us as graduates the most. We were really worried four or five months earlier that we were going to go into World War Three,” Mr. Johnston said.
A dose of cold reality may be a popular device today, but convocation addresses are still intended to inspire, leading some speakers to segue to the excitement of not knowing what’s in store.
Prem Watsa, the Canadian investment guru who has been chancellor of the University of Waterloo since 2009, likes to tell graduates about the time when, as a 21-year-old engineering student on a rail car between Chennai and Hyderabad, India, he met a stranger who introduced him to Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich – a text that has guided him ever since.
“It wasn’t planned. It came out of the blue. And for me, it had a very significant impact on my life,” he said.
Mr. Watsa’s favourite commencement address is a popular choice – the one the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005. Mr. Jobs famously cited dropping out of college and getting fired from Apple as two of the best moments of his life, urging students to pursue what they love relentlessly, and signing off with, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Mr. Watsa likes the way Mr. Jobs found opportunity in his setbacks.
Some commentators have called the speech unhelpful and irresponsible given that most grads – even from Stanford – won’t ever be Steve Jobs. “The problem is, the people who give these sorts of speeches are the outliers,” Megan McArdle wrote in The Atlantic.
But Mr. Jobs’s message would fit well among this year’s procession of honoured speakers – as was evident from the number of people who returned to it for inspiration after his death last fall. Yes, the world may seem unfair and unstable right now, some said. And yes, it will likely feel that way again later in life. But you’re all sitting here because can think, adapt and learn, and you must energetically pour those skills into moulding a future for all of us.
“I’d say it’s perfectly acceptable, and valuable, to challenge the students, even if it makes them a little bit uncomfortable,” Dr. Amrhein said. “A lot of young people don’t necessarily want to be told that they need to step up to the plate or society will stumble – that’s a pretty heavy burden to receive as you finish your last exam – but I think the [honorary doctorate recipients] have a pretty wide latitude.”
Excerpts from reality-focused speeches
Mordecai Richler, McGill University, 2000: “...The truth is when I was your age I was in no need of advice. I knew everything. My world was filled with certitudes. But when you get to be my age, you realize you know nothing. Doubts are the unhappy rule."
Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941: “You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination.”
David McCullough, Wellesley High School, 2012: “You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped....Capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counselled you, encouraged you, consoled you, and encouraged you again. . . . But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.’’
Steve Jobs, Harvard University, 2005: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Governor-General David Johnston as "Dr." Mr. Johnston has not earned a doctorate degree.