Philip Delves-Broughton

Degrees of optimism

The speeches given to new graduates at American universities are a distinct literary form – and a measure of national mood

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The speeches given to new graduates at American universities are a distinct literary form – and a measure of national mood

To understand what is going on in America’s head, it is worth tuning in to the early summer hum of commencement addresses. These secular sermons, delivered by politicians, businesspeople, entertainers and other assorted worthies to those graduating from university, are a unique literary form which provides an excellent measure of the national mood. They offer the latest riffs on America’s great national themes, on ambition, equality, perseverance and optimism. In good times, they are giddy; in bad times, sober. In the muddled middle, where we find ourselves now, they are as confused as the various market indicators — one day as glum as Harold Camping, the Californian preacher who predicted the world would end this past May, the next as high as an early-stage investor in Facebook.

In his two commencement addresses, at Miami Dade College and at the US Coast Guard Academy, President Obama chose to emphasise American resilience in the face of adversity. To the community college students of Florida, he said that the quickening pace of economic change made it a very difficult time to be graduating. It has forced Americans to compete harder against more rivals than ever before. ‘It’s an intimidating time to be marching out into the world,’ he said. To the Coast Guard cadets, he said that at times like these ‘we each do our part, knowing that we have navigated rough seas before and we will do so again’.

Arianna Huffington made a similar pitch to the graduates of Sarah Lawrence College just north of New York. But rather than trying to match the President’s rhetoric, she drew on her own romantic life to illustrate her point of finding light in darkness. During her twenties, she said, she dated Bernard Levin. After seven years, she was 30 and desperate to marry. Levin refused, so she dumped him and moved to America to escape his potent aura. Out of romantic distress came her professional flourishing. ‘I left the man I deeply loved. And basically everything that’s happened in my life — my children, my books, the Huffington Post, the fact that I’m here speaking in front of you today — is because a man wouldn’t marry me.’

A few years ago, passion and the pursuit of meaningful work were the main themes. With so little work to go round, the focus has naturally turned to how to deal with reversal. There were lots of jokes about recent graduates having to move back in with their parents, and the futility of humanities degrees. Failure, its inevitability and the importance of learning from it, dominated this year’s commencement speeches as it has since 2008, when J.K. Rowling told Harvard’s graduates that it was finding herself a penniless single mother in her late twenties that gave her the focus to write the Harry Potter books: ‘Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.’

Conan O’Brien, a television chat show host who last year lost his prime gig on the Tonight Show, said this year at Dartmouth College that ‘there are few things more liberating in life than having your worst fears realised’. Once the humiliation of losing his job had worn off, O’Brien was able to pursue all kinds of new opportunities, from doing a stand-up tour and making a documentary, to eventually hosting another chat show on a lesser-watched cable channel. Stephen Colbert, another television comedian, who spoke this year at Northwestern University in Illinois, urged the students to modify their dreams as they go along. ‘If we’d all stuck with our first dream,’ he said, ‘the world would be overrun by cowboys and princesses.’ Successful lives are less often planned than the fruit of ‘just yanking ideas out of your ass as you go along’. Tom Hanks told the graduates of Yale not to succumb to the ‘powerful physiological force’ of fear but rather to let it ‘spur your boot heels to be wanderin’’ towards great achievements.

Another common theme was the importance of switching off one’s devices and reacquainting oneself with a slower pace of human relations unmediated by technology. Samantha Power, one of the President’s senior foreign affairs advisers, advised the students of Occidental College in Los Angeles to ‘be all in. This means leaving your technology behind occasionally and listening to a friend without half of your brain being preoccupied by its inner longing for the red light on the Blackberry.’ She said that ‘You actually have to reacquaint yourself with concentration. We all do. We should all become, as Henry James prescribed, a person “on whom nothing is lost”.’

There were no commencement speeches this year to rival the greatest, such as George Marshall’s speech at Harvard in 1947 in which he laid out his plan for rebuilding post-war Europe. But the one that may be best remembered belonged to Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook. Ms Sandberg, 41, is one of very few women to have made it to the top of the technology business, first at Google and now at Facebook.

She told the class of 2011 at Barnard College in New York that her generation of women had failed to capitalise on the promise of equality. She blamed it on their tendency to be less ambitious than men, to lean away from their careers at crucial moments. She said that women rarely make one decision to leave the workforce, but several smaller ones over years, when they choose less demanding degree courses or careers because they anticipate one day having families. ‘These women don’t even have relationships and already they’re finding balance, balance for responsibilities they don’t yet have. And from that moment, they start quietly leaning back.’

Sandberg has a political past — as chief of staff to the Treasury Secretary, Larry Summers, in the late 1990s — and very likely a political future, given her success, her personal fortune and any more speeches that resonate like this one. As Hillary Clinton’s career winds down, Sandberg, should she so choose, looks her likeliest successor in public life.