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The Best Commencement Speeches of 2008

By Christopher Schonberger

Another commencement season has come and gone, leaving in its wake the collective words of hundreds of eminent writers, politicians, and thinkers. (Also, Chuck Norris made a speech.) Since graduates are generally too dizzy with excitement, sleeplessness, and PBR to remember the commencement address in much detail, we've sifted through some speeches to find out who was talking about what around college campuses this spring. We’ve already given you the Top Ten All-Time Best Graduation Speeches, but here are some highlights from 2008 to keep your inspiration current:

J.K. Rowling, Harvard University

In a speech entitled “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination,” the notoriously private author of Harry Potter stressed the importance of taking risks, living creatively, and learning from failure rather than fearing it. Joking about the fact that she doesn’t remember the commencement speech at her own graduation, Rowling said she could proceed “without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, the law, or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.”

Barack Obama, Wesleyan University

As we’ve discussed before, Barack Obama is not a bad substitute to call in when your commencement speaker falls through. Obama drew upon his life story and the Kennedy legacy as he urged students to be engaged in public life.

Barbara Kingsolver, Duke University

The Poisonwood Bible author talked about hope and sustainability, urging students to be community-oriented and avoid the allure of success that is purely selfish. Sample line: “Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; if it does accumulate, that happens by accident while you're trying to do something else. And wisdom is what people will start wanting from you, after your last exam.” Word is bond, Kingsolver.

Randy Pausch, Carnegie Mellon

Nine months ago, the celebrated professor of computer science was told that his cancer had metastasized and he only had 3-6 months to live. Standing against the odds, he shared his beliefs on what gives meaning to a life with this year’s grads.

Michelle Nijhuis, Reed College

Environmental writer Michelle Nijhuis is relatively young for a commencement speaker, having graduated from Reed in 1996. But she had some interesting words on “weirdness” and the importance of responsible rebellion.

Tony Blair, Yale University

Amidst anti-war demonstrations, Blair did not eschew politics as he discussed the growing power of India and China, stressing the importance of forging partnerships to avoid conflict. On a more philosophical note, he urged students to have a purpose in life, explaining: “There are great careers. There are also great causes.”

Stephen Colbert, Princeton University

Colbert visited Princeton to accept “The Great Princeton Class of 2008 Understandable Vanity Award” and asked graduates not to try to change the world—“ Some of us like the way things are going now.”

Chris Schonberger, The Gradspot.com Guide to Life After College

I guess my fee was a little too high for any actual colleges to bear, but fortunately I’ve made my own words of wisdom available to all in the “Author’s Foreword” to Gradspot.com’s new book. Download it for free here.

[shoutout to Metafilter for the links]

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