The Importance of a Graduation Ceremony

I know I briefly touched upon this on my “Lighter” reading, but I wanted to address the graduation speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson to a group of Harvard graduating students, titled The Divinity School Address.

As I approach graduation in May 2014, I think, Where has the time gone? My uncle told me when I left for college how fast the time goes. I laughed to myself—no way four years flies by. Well, lo and behold, here I am, waiting to move onto the next stage of my life in less than six months.

After I graduated from high school, I was never keen on the concept of a graduation ceremony. I always thought it was too tacky and drew out way longer than I or any of my classmates wanted. I viewed it as a nuisance, or distraction, rather than as an opportunity. And that is truly what a graduation is – an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to watch particular classmates receive their diploma, thinking about that time you first met them and how much they have or have not changed. It’s an opportunity to learn a point of view you’ve never heard before, or maybe disagreed with, in the case of one of your classmates’ speech. It’s an opportunity to appreciate your school, whether it be at the high school level or collegiate, in a nostalgic way as you look back during the dwindling hours and minutes remaining at the academic setting. Finally, as seen in Emerson’s address to the Harvard graduation class, it’s an opportunity, and a luxury for that matter, to soak in an immense amount of knowledge via a profoundly recognized professor’s or public figure’s speech.

In Emerson’s speech, he starts out by explaining that each man is made in providence with himself, rather than from others or our surroundings. To make a long story short, his quintessential message is to obey ourselves, meaning not to accept other interpretations around us, all the while letting “the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing (267)”

Anders Holm

Anders Holm at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo unattributed.

Last year, the University and students selected Anders Holm, creator of Comedy Central’s Workaholics. While Holm delivered his speech in a clear satirical tone (something that was absolutely hilarious), it was coupled with some outstanding tidbits of advice, including “Consider what people think of you, but don’t be afraid of what people think of you” and “Practice being curious, want to know things, ask questions (Kingkade, 2013).”

Last, but not least, the jury is still out on who the University and students will select to give the the Class of 2014’s commencement speech. Whether it is another funny individual or a more serious individual, it will still be an opportunity. In fact, it’s the last opportunity in college for students and faculty members alike to be in the same vicinity with each other for probably the rest of their lives.

In a greater sense though, it marks a new beginning into the treacherous real world, and the beauty about this beginning is that individuals – keynote and student speaker – have a chance to alter this new beginning, mentally rather than physically, something that is truly special for a student at any University. More so, I think those who speak in front of a graduating class take the responsibility, or opportunity, seriously. They realize the potential this opportunity can have on the students and respond accordingly with a moving speech, regardless of what tone or form it is delivered in.

This is why I believe one of the most important criteria for selecting a keynote speaker is that they are an alumni of the University they are speaking at, which was both the case in Emerson’s speech to Harvard and Holm’s speech to UW. First, having a keynote speaker being an alumni allows the speaker to easily relate to the graduating class, as they are able to point out similar obstacles they faced at the particular university. Moreover, at least at UW, people who attended here know what it’s like to be a Badger; we are a family with a distinct culture that only those who have attended here truly know the feeling of it.

Would the speech have any less relevance if the speaker was outside the “Badger” family? Probably not; ask Stanford’s 2005 graduating class when the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs was the keynote speaker, a college dropout. Nevertheless, it’s a privilege to graduate from a prestigious university like UW so it’s worth all of our time to take the graduation ceremony for its true value – an opportunity.

My question to you: is it a big deal who is selected to give a commencement speech? Does it need to be a Hollywood celebrity, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company? Why can’t it be a lesser-known author? Do they even need to be from the University of Wisconsin?

– Rex S.

Works Cited

Baym, N. & Levine, R.S. (Eds.). (2012). The Norton Anthology American Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc,

Kingkade, T. (2013). “Anders Holm At UWMadison Commencement Tells Grads to ‘Practice Being Curious.”             Huffington Post. Retrieved from:


One thought on “The Importance of a Graduation Ceremony

  1. I find an interesting link between Emerson’s idea of obeying oneself and not accepting the interpretations around us to my own situation. As English majors, I’m sure some of you have had relatives ask, “But what are you going to do with an English major?” or something along those lines. When I was attending a wedding over the summer, one of the other attendees and I were chatting in line at the bar. He was a Badger Alum who majored in Business and retired by the age of 50. He essentially scoffed at me upon learning that I’m an English and Communications major, and said that the job world would be exceedingly difficult for me because I’m a liberal arts major. At the same time, I’m sure he told me what my concerned parents and relatives are too kind not to: liberal arts majors don’t look great on paper.

    But that’s why I find Emerson’s concept of self-reliance and acceptance of the self so important. I chose to major in English because I love the subject and I think it teaches more than just what a bunch of writers have said. It teaches of history and the overarching spirit of humanity that makes us who we are. I don’t think I’m going to end up being a jobless, poor, sad individual because I majored in English. I know that I have skills to offer an employer, despite the fact that I didn’t “just major in business instead.” I know I’m running on a tangent, but your allusion to Emerson got me thinking about the validity of one’s specified major. I don’t plan to be an engineer; I don’t plan to do accounting; I merely want to edit and/or create, whether it be for a publishing company or a marketing agency. With all the scrutiny English majors (and liberal arts majors in general) receive, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of Emerson’s idea that we can all be “men made in providence within ourselves,” and that we can essentially be whoever we’d like to be, so long as we’re self-reliant and hardworking.

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