What We Learn from 300 Commencement Speeches Since 1774

NPR has compiled more than 300 commencement speeches, all searchable by "name, school, date, or theme."

  NPR Commencement Speeches

In an article about the speeches, NPR identified 12 themes:

  1. Change the world
  2. Tips
  3. Inner voice
  4. Don't give up
  5. Work hard
  6. Embrace failure
  7. Remember history
  8. Dream
  9. Balance
  10. Make Art
  11. YOLO
  12. Be kind

NPR also tells us about the changing face of commencement speakers:

"Since the colonial era, young graduates in stiff gowns and itchy mortarboards have been forced to sit through this one last lecture. On rare occasions, politicians have used commencements to say important things, like John F. Kennedy announcing a nuclear test ban. Other lucky graduates have been treated to profound musings by literary geniuses like Joseph Brodsky and Kurt Vonnegut or calls to action by activists like Gloria Steinem.

"Today, like so much else, the format has become dominated by celebs - the Conan O'Briens, Meryl Streeps, and Amy Poehlers. But commencement speeches still make news, and like those by the late David Foster Wallace and the great George Saunders, they can still be poetry."

Discussion Starters:

  • If you were to watch just two speeches, which would you watch? Would you search by name, school, or something else?
  • Watch and assess one of the speeches: What observations do you make about the organization, tone, delivery, messages, and so on?