Most graduation advice—whether given in boom times or moments of crisis—depicts a future replete with untrammeled ground and endless unknowns. And if you take a look at commencement addresses from the past, you’ll see a glimpse of what people in power told privileged young people to believe in and sketches of what the future could be, which we can now consider next to the reality of what came next. Lapham’s Quarterly is revisiting the history of giving advice to graduates and others in the process of acquiring knowledge or skills.
Shortly after Kurt Vonnegut returned in 1945 from Dresden, where he had spent months as a German prisoner of war, he enrolled at the University of Chicago, hoping to earn a master’s degree in anthropology. He had dropped out of Cornell University before enlisting in 1943, and had to wait until 1971 to be awarded his degree after advisers had rejected his thesis, which he later declared was too elegantly simple and fun for academic tastes. (“They can take a flying fuck at the moooooooooooooooon,” he later rejoined in an essay.) After Vonnegut became a best-selling writer, his novel Cat’s Cradle was accepted as a thesis, and as a celebrity author he became a frequent giver of advice about postcollegiate life. “He was in such demand as a commencement speaker,” Charles J. Shields wrote in his biography of Vonnegut, “that when the Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote a humorous address to college graduates in June 1997 headlined advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young , it was misattributed to Vonnegut. As a result, the ‘Wear Sunscreen Speech,’ as it came to be known, supposedly delivered by Vonnegut at MIT, has been credited to him for years.” Here is a speech that Vonnegut actually did deliver, at Syracuse University on May 8, 1994, titled “How I Learned from a Teacher What Artists Do.”
There are three things that I very much want to say in this brief hail and farewell. They are things which haven’t been said enough to you freshly minted graduates nor to your parents or guardians, nor to me, nor to your teachers. I will say these in the body of my speech, I’m just setting you up for this.