The Biggest Surprise about Commencement Speeches
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The Biggest Surprise about Commencement Speeches

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Before you picket, protest, sit-in or safe-space your way out of listening to a conservative commencement speaker this college graduation season, I need to let you in on a secret:

Conservatives give better commencement addresses than liberals.

I know, I know, how is that possible? It’s liberal arts after all, right? When you — or more likely, your parents — have just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for that B.A. in  anthropology or political science, who needs Ayaan Hirsi Ali telling you that universities have become temples of dogmatic orthodoxy or P.J. O’Rourke killing the moment with a speech about how ideals are pointless?

Actually, you do.

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Two new anthologies of commencement speeches offer a revealing comparison of how liberals and conservative perform in this springtime ritual. “The World is Waiting For You,” edited by Tara  Grove and Isabel Ostrer, bills itself as “the perfect gift for all who feel ready to move their tassels to the left.” Its roster includes Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, and other high-profile liberals. “Remembering Who We Are,” edited by Zev Chafets, features prominent conservatives, including Roger Ailes, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina and more. Drawing from this sample of 48 speeches — 30 by conservatives, 18 by liberals — the right-leaning speakers stand out for five reasons:

Conservatives speak to you as an individual. Liberal commencement speakers tend to address graduates as members of a group, usually a generation. “If you are part of the first generation of Americans who genuinely see race and ethnicity as attributes, not stereotypes, will you have done better than we did?” journalist Anna Quindlen asked in her 2011 speech to Grinnell College. “The genius of your generation has yet to be told,” law professor Theodore M. Shaw told graduates of Wesleyan University in 2014. “You are the first Internet Generation.” And they call on you to act as a group as well, as part of an activist community or movement: “The ridiculously earnest are known to travel in groups,” Barbara Kingsolver declared to Duke University’s 2008 graduates. “And they are known to change the world.”

Though conservatives can also lapse into generation-speak, they are more likely to address you one-on-one, focusing on people more than movements. And when you’re about to leave behind a phase of your life in which you’ve always moved forward as part of a class or group, and enter a working world when you’ll rise and fall on your own, that’s not a bad approach. Both Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, for example, stressed the importance of finding your own personal talents — and how that will lead to fulfilling work as well as happiness and (of course) income. “The money will come if you do the right thing, and you use your talent well,” Ailes told 2013’s University of North Carolina journalism school graduates. That may take time, O’Reilly cautioned: “Don’t panic if you haven’t figured out the talent thing,” he said to Marist College grads in 2001. “Take opportunities as they present themselves and work hard. Eventually it will come to you.”

Conservative speeches are shorter.  Most of the shorter speeches tend to appear in the conservative anthology. Speakers such as Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other hotspots; Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly; and economist Thomas Sargent offered especially concise addresses. In the liberal anthology, only Noam Chomsky’s address to the American University in Beirut in 2013 stood out for its relative brevity. (Of course, not all of the conservative addresses were merciful in length: Bobby Jindal and David Mamet’s speeches gave you enough time to pick up a few extra credit hours.)

Conservatives give more actionable advice. Liberal speeches are sweeping, epic, certainly inspiring — but often short on specifics. “Godpseed, as you go out and change the world” is how Marian Wright Edelman concluded her remarks to Muhlenberg College in 2008, and that’s not atypical on the left. But conservatives, whether or not you like their advice, seem more willing to get granular. “Promise yourself that over the next year, you’re going to spend half an hour a day learning something new,” Ben Carson urged at Regent University in 2014. “One half hour a day, that’s not a big investment. Get an algebra book, a chemistry book, a physics book. . . . Civics, geography, world history, American history, Greek history. Half an hour a day for one year. I guarantee you in a year’s time, people who haven’t seen you in a while will say, ‘Who are you?’ They will not recognize you.” In 2013, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, drew on survey data to advise Thomas Edison State College graduates how to lead happier lives. “Immerse yourself in faith, family, community, and work,” he said. “And never waste your time chasing anything unearned.” And speaking to the University of Georgia’s 2005 law school class, former solicitor general Theodore Olsen outlined the pitfalls leading to professional failure, focusing on workplace ambition and attitude. “Watch what happens when you spend a lot of time marveling at your last accomplishment,” he warned.

Conservatives tell better stories. By far, the more memorable personal tales in these collections come from conservative speakers. In her 2005 speech at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Carly Fiorina recalled how she was nearly shut out of an important work meeting early in her career because the client wanted to go to a strip club and her male co-workers didn’t want her to feel “uncomfortable” — so she decided to join them there. Brit Hume on the time Charlton Heston asked Hume to call him “Chuck,” and Hume responded: “I could no more call you Chuck, sir, than I could call Moses ‘Mo.'” Jindal deadpanning on how he and the only other Republican undergraduate at Brown University easily became president and vice president of the school’s College Republicans. If you have to sit through a final lecture before graduating, it may as well be entertaining.

Conservatives are less likely to suck up to you. “Your generation should be the model for my generation because you totally rock,” Anna Quindlen gushed to Grinnell College graduates in 2011. And Wynton Marsalis looked at the 2001 Connecticut College graduating class and said, “Check yourselves out, because it’s a beautiful thing.” There are some conservative suck-ups, too, but Antonin Scalia captured the room-for-improvement strain running through lots of right-leaning speeches: “To thine own self be true,” he told graduates in 2010, “depending upon who you think you are.” And Rush Limbaugh, when asked on his radio show in May 2008 what he would say to a graduating class, was even tougher: “The first thing that I would say is the world does not revolve around you, yet, and you are not the future leaders of the country, yet, just because you’ve graduated.”

Of course, arguing that conservative commencement addresses are better than liberal ones is not the same as saying that conservative speeches are all that great. Most commencement speeches are, in fact, forgettable; the limits to the form persist regardless of politics. But when a survey finds that liberal graduation speakers far outnumber conservative ones at top U.S. colleges, it’s worth noting why you might be better off hearing a conservative speech. That is, if you’re listening at all. Godspeed!

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post

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