In the rising age of TEDTalks, podcasts and tweet storms, the commencement speech remains a highly anticipated annual event featuring everyone from celebrities and authors to academics, politicians and pop culture icons.

Graduation season kicks off this weekend and ceremonies at America’s colleges and universities will continue throughout the month. Riley Gaines will address graduates of Adrian College this Sunday. Other notables in May include Pat Sajak at Hillsdale, Senator Tim Scott at Liberty, Rick Warren at Oral Roberts, Ken Burns at Brandeis, Roger Federer at Dartmouth, Jon Meacham at Tulane – and Jerry Seinfeld at Duke.

Once upon a time, outside speakers didn’t entertain, enlighten and serve up advice to graduates and their families and friends. Instead, it was the graduates themselves who spoke, dazzling the gathered and showing off their hard-earned oratory skills that were cultivated the last four years or more. Philosophical debates between students were also featured as part of graduation ceremonies.

But that all began to change towards the end of the 19th century as the emphasis on the spoken word and speaking skills in colleges began to decline. For over a hundred years, we’ve grown accustomed to sitting back and listening to the purported wisdom of those from outside the school.

At times, the words are well worth the price of admission, whether it’s sitting in the hot sun or enduring an otherwise dull ceremony.

In May of 1998, Prison Fellowship founder and former Nixon hatchet man, Chuck Colson, spoke for just over 22 minutes to Geneva College graduates.

“You have the capacity to know what is right and what is wrong,” he observed. “And if you can’t define what is right and wrong in a culture, you are headed for the kind of moral nihilism we’re experiencing today.”

His main advice? “Build and develop your character” – but establish your life on the timeless principles of Scripture:

We all have the greatest message of all:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” Respect others. Speak the truth.

Simply “let your ‘yes’ be yes” — your ‘no’ no.” Act justly. “Do justly.” “Love mercy.” “Walk humbly with your God.” “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things.”

“Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

“Who may live on your holy hill? He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous; who speaks the truth from his heart and has no slander on his tongue; who does his neighbor no wrong and casts no slur on his fellow man; who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the Lord; who keeps his oath, his word,” even when it hurts.

“Stop doing wrong.” “Learn to do right.” “Seek justice.” “Encourage the oppressed.” “Defend the cause of the fatherless.” “Plead the cause of the widow.”

In 2002, beloved children’s television host Mister Fred Rogers spoke at Dartmouth, his alma mater:

I have a lot of framed things in my office, which people have given to me through the years. And on my walls are Greek, and Hebrew, and Russian, and Chinese. And beside my chair, is a French sentence from Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince [sic]. It reads, “L’essential est invisible pour les yeux.” What is essential is invisible to the eye. Well, what is essential about you? And who are those who have helped you become the person you are? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who has ever been able to sustain a good work, has had at least one person, and often many, who have believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without a lot of different investments from others.

When Fred Rogers requested one minute of silence and encouraged those present to think of one person who made them who they were, a holy hush enveloped the sun-drenched space.

Dr. Ben Carson, the highly decorated neurosurgeon and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, spoke at commencement ceremonies at Niagara University in 2003.

“We live in a nation where people can’t talk about what they believe in anymore,” he lamented. “The ancient Greeks and the Romans did the same thing. Their philosophers started philosophizing about everything. All of a sudden there was no right, there was no wrong, it was all relative. They could explain away anything. Does that sound in any way familiar to you today?”

Dr. Carson concluded by urging graduates to “Think Big” – advice with a double meaning:

The ‘T’ is for talent, which God gave to every single person … The ‘H’ is for honesty. Lead a clean and honest life … The ‘I’ is for insight, from people and from reading good books … The ‘N’ is for nice, for being nice to all people … The “K” is for knowledge which is the thing that makes you into a more valuable person.

He continued:

The ‘B’ is for books … The second ‘I’ is for in-depth learning … And the “G” is for God. Don’t ever be ashamed to talk about God and the affects that God has had on you and in your life.

This year’s offerings, especially those at Christian colleges and universities, will undoubtedly feature equally wise and practical servings of advice. If you’re attending one of those graduations, please let us know – we’d enjoy highlighting and sharing them with the Daily Citizen audience.


Images from Getty.