Remembering celebrated past graduation speakers

Chelsea Bissell

Technically, the exact moment of graduation occurs when students receive their diplomas and shake hands with the paper’s bestower.   This single moment, however, is rarely the most memorable in the reminiscing hearts of graduates.

Instead, graduates tend to remember the speakers and their addresses as the events that define the ceremony.   Luckily, Whitman has a long history of honoring its graduates with accomplished and sophisticated speakers.

Of course, honorary Whitman degrees prove an incentive for these talented individuals.

The speakers for the past three Commencement ceremonies have lived up to history’s expectation.   Whitman has culled the likes of William Gates Sr., (the Microsoft big-wig’s father), renowned economist, environmentalist and human rights activist Jeffery Sachs and Berkeley history professor and ethnologist, Dr. Ronald Takaki.

Though three years is a narrow scope of history, the differences in the three speeches, the events discussed and the mannerisms utilized show the character of each year.   They reveal the issues of our age and the shifts and similarities from one graduation year to the next.

To the graduates of 2008, William Gates Sr. discussed community in a time where the individual thrives.

Gates began his address poking fun at his more famous son for not finishing college and humorously blaming himself for not motivating Bill Jr. enough.   The speech began to get more serious as Gates discussed family, both traditional and cultivated.

Gates implored the students to consider what it means to be a parent. He expounded on the relative absurdity that parents are expected to start cold, without any experience or instruction for their new role and offered his advice.

“Let me suggest that you be as deliberate as you can be about the job of raising your family,” said Gates. “Being deliberate helps translate your fundamental human decency into your behavior as a parent.”

He went on to extol the marvel of good, lasting friendships. Gates emphasized that maintaining friendships is a deliberate and provoking process.

“You do need to mail that note or make the phone call to keep friendship alive,” he said.

Gates tied his discussion of close relationships to an individual’s relationship with humanity.   He defined this citizenship as unity and social support, sticking together.
He labeled the Civil Rights Movement as the most magnificent example of citizenship in his generation.   His praise focused on the larger community, the unsung heroes of the movement.

“For every Martin Luther King there were thousands of courageous southerners, citizens whose names we don’t know, who sat in at lunch counters,” said Gates. “Thousands who registered to vote, boycotted buses, and enrolled in schools where they weren’t wanted. Thousands who marched into mobs of men armed with billy clubs.”

For Gates, these people enmeshed in an en masse resolve to fight for a cause is the meat of public will and “the real substance of democracy.” Gates implored the graduates of 2008, their friends and family, to participate in these acts of citizenship.   He touted the public will as the general consensus of moral action.

According to Gates, there is no shame in joining the public will.

“You don’t need a soap box to be a good citizen,” explained Gates. “You just need to be part of the public will to make life on this planet a little bit better.”

Jefferey Sach’s 2007 Commencement speech, entitled “Meeting our Millennium Promises,” expressed sentiments of significantly greater morose than Gates.

Sachs, an economics professor at Harvard and author of a number of books on poverty, economic development and environmental stability, focused much of his speech on politics.

He began by marking 2007 as the anniversary of such illustrious events as the end of the slave trade in the British Empire, the independence of India and Ghana, and the public’s introduction to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Paul McCartney has turned 64, and yes we still need him, and yes we’ll still feed him now that he’s 64,” joked Sachs.

President Kennedy’s 1963 commencement address at American University served as the kernel of Sach’s speech. During the president’s address, Kennedy made a plea for peace, both in America and the Soviet Union. According to Sachs, this peaceful plea would have been an impossibility for the nation’s leaders in 2007.

“Our generation has left you with a bit of a mess. President Bush’s sentiment that you are with us or against us is the opposite of what we need,” said Sachs. “As in 1963, we must look inward to make sure that our attitudes are compatible with peaceful co-existence on a crowded planet.”

Sachs continued on his political path by highlighting the three global problem areas that will rest on the shoulders of the graduates:   the wealth gap, “global environmental degradation” and “peace with China, India and the other rising powers.”

Sachs ended his Commencement address with a homework assignment for the soon-to-be graduates.

“I assign you to end extreme poverty by the year 2025. The mid-term exam is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015,” lectured Sachs.
In a move very similar to Gate’s appeal for public will, Sachs emphasized the need for community cooperation.

“You can : and indeed must : work in groups,” he said.

The joyous and celebratory tone of Dr. Ronald Takaki’s 2006   Commencement address abandoned political aspirations and disregarded homework assignments. Takaki, a professor of American history at Berkeley, used his book on mulitcultral America as the inspiration for his speech “A Different Mirror:   Studying the Past for the Sake of the Future.”

Takaki began his address with the beginning of his education.   He praised his high school teacher in Hawaii. Knighted with a Ph.D., this teacher pressed his students into exploring knowledge.   He taught Takaki   that the “how” of knowing is often more important than the “what.”   He taught Takaki the definition of epistemology:   “How do you know you know what you know?”

It’s a definition he still uses when teaching his current students the same term.

This teacher, discontented with Takaki’s plan to remain in Hawaii after high school, wrote to Wooster College in Ohio.

“A month later, I received a letter from the dean of the College of Wooster, which read:   ‘Dear Mr. Takaki, you have been accepted to the College of Wooster.   But please fill out the application form,'” said Takaki.

Once transplanted in Ohio, Takaki was awashed with culture shock, as were his fellow students.   They misunderstood his Hawaiian background and thus his ability to speak English.

“Looking back at my Wooster experience, I realize that it was not their fault that they could not and did not see me as an American,” said Takaki. “My fellow students viewed me through a filter.   I call this filter the Master Narrative of American History.”

For Takaki, this served as the jumping point for his fascination with the American cultural collage.   He addressed this subject by talking about his book “A Different Mirror:   A History of Multicultural America,” which he humorously plugged during the address.

He ended his speech with hopes that all the graduates will honor those mentors that fought for their students.   He also asked the graduates to continue to ask themselves, “How do you know you know what you know?”