On Monday, President Barack Obama gave a commencement address to the graduates of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn. I happened to be in Memphis that day, having arrived over the weekend for an unrelated event.
I had expected to hear people talking mostly about the flooding Mississippi River, but that wasn’t the case. The river was still very high, but it was old news. Instead, folks were talking about the surprising run of the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA playoffs and the president’s visit.
Even though Obama generated a great deal of talk, there seemed to be comparatively little interest in what he was going to say. But after all, it was a commencement address. What is there to say?
Few graduation speeches are memorable. Of the dozens I have endured, one in particular stands out because the speaker managed to put nearly everyone in the audience to sleep. Of course, putting people to sleep is not that difficult (I’ve done it myself), but to accomplish it during a celebratory occasion when people are sitting in uncomfortable chairs — that takes talent.
Graduation speeches generally are unremarkable because the themes are so predictable. First, there are three versions of the time speech: “Cherish Your Memories,” “Live in the Present” and “You are the Future.” Another common theme is encouragement, as in the “Make a Difference” speech or the “Don’t Give Up” speech. A third theme is introspection, in which graduates are urged to “Be True to Yourself” or to go out and “Discover Yourself.”
Finally, there is “The Importance of Education” speech. This tends to be the worst. It is the speech most likely to put people to sleep. The time to talk about why kids should go to school isn’t the day they are finally getting out of school. Unless, of course, you are the president, in which case people will keep themselves awake by cheering or booing regardless of what you say.
That’s pretty much it. The difference between a good graduation speech and a poor graduation speech resides not in theme but in execution. As the architect Mies van der Rohe famously said: “God is in the details.”
Obama gave an “encouragement/importance of education” speech. That’s a challenging combination, but he got the details right.
Obama acknowledged the importance of a change in attitude for the amazing turnaround that Booker T. Washington High School has had in recent years. “You didn’t just create a new curriculum, you created a new culture — a culture that prizes hard work and discipline; a culture that shows every student here that they matter and that their teachers believe in them.” He praised the students, the parents and the teachers for working together to be successful. “You inspire me,” he said.
Education is important, he continued, because it is transformative: the qualities developed through sustained hard work “change how we see ourselves.” When education is done right, students acquire “empathy, discipline, the capacity to solve problems, and the capacity to think critically.”
Such qualities are necessary because they prepare young people for public life and thus make our country better.
In emphasizing the transformative role of education, Obama expressed a classical view of schools as places where students learn how to become citizens. To commence is to “begin.” Commencement marks the passage into the public life of the community. It’s an important occasion, worthy of a presidential address.
I wonder what Lionel Hollins, head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, said to get his players to perform so far beyond expectations in the recent playoff series? Probably something like, “This is your time” or “Go out and give it everything you’ve got!” What else could he say? In the end, the words don’t matter that much. It’s just important that the coach say something. He has to show that he believes in the team.
That’s what Obama did Monday for the graduates of Booker T. Washington. And that’s what speakers across the region will be doing for our graduates in the coming days.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking
influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.