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

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.

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