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.
First, I will say thank you. Second, I will say I am truly sorry—now that is the striking novelty among the three. We live in a time when nobody ever seems to apologize for anything; they just weep and raise hell on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The third thing I want to say to you at some point—probably close to the end—is “We love you.” Now if I fail to say any of those three things in the body of this great speech, hold up your hands, and I will remedy the deficiency.
And I’m going to ask you to hold up your hands this early in the proceedings for another reason. I first declare to you that the most wonderful thing, the most valuable thing you can get from an education is this—the memory of one person who could really teach, whose lessons made life and yourselves much more interesting and full of possibilities than you had previously supposed possible. I ask this of everyone here, including all of us up here on the platform—how many of us, how many of you, had such a teacher? Kindergarten counts. Please hold up your hands. Hurry. You may want to remember the name of that great teacher.
I thank you for being educated. There, I’ve thanked you now; that way I don’t have to speak to a bunch of nincompoops. For you freshly minted college graduates, this is a puberty ceremony long overdue. We, whose principal achievement is that we are older than you, have to acknowledge at last that you are grown-ups, too. There are old poops possibly among us on this very day who will say that you are not grown-ups until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity—the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today, I am a woman; today I am a man. The end.”
I apologize. I said I would apologize; I apologize now. I apologize because of the terrible mess the planet is in. But it has always been a mess. There have never been any “Good Old Days,” there have just been days. And as I say to my grandchildren, “Don’t look at me. I just got here myself.”
So you know what I’m going to do? I declare everybody here a member of Generation A. Tomorrow is another day for all of us.
Having said that, I have made us, for a few hours at least, what most of us do not have and what we need so desperately—I have made us an extended family, one for all and all for one. A husband, a wife, and some kids is not a family; it’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit. Now those of you who get married or are married, when you fight with your spouse, what each of you will be saying to the other one actually is “You’re not enough people. You’re only one person. I should have hundreds of people around.”
Now, I’ve made us an extended family. Does our family have a flag? Well, you bet. It’s a big orange rectangle. Orange is a very good color and maybe the best one. It’s full of vitamin C and cheerful associations, if one could forget the troubles in Ireland.
Now this gathering is a work of art. The teacher whose name I thought of when we all remembered good teachers asked me one time, “What is it artists do?” And I mumbled something. “They do two things,” he said. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe. And then second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be. A blob of clay, a square of canvas, a piece of paper, or whatever.” We have all worked so hard and well to make these moments and this place exactly what it should be.
I had a bad uncle named Dan, who said a male can’t be a man unless he’d gone to war. But I had a good uncle named Alex, who said, when life was most agreeable—and it could be just a pitcher of lemonade in the shade—he would say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?” So I say that about what we have achieved here right now. If he hadn’t said that so regularly, maybe five or six times a month, we might not have paused to notice how rewarding life can be sometimes. Perhaps my good Uncle Alex will live on in some of you members of this graduating class if, in the future, you will pause to say out loud every so often, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
Now, my time is up and I haven’t even inspired you with heroic tales of the past—Teddy Roosevelt’s cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, Desert Storm—nor given you visions of a glorious future—computer programs, interactive TV, the information superhighway, speed the day. I spent too much time celebrating this very moment and place—once the future we dreamed of so long ago. This is it. We’re here. How the heck did we do it?
A neighbor of mine, I hired him—he was a handyman—to build an L on my house where I could write. He did the whole damn thing—he built the foundation, and then the sidewalls and the roof. He did it all by himself. And when it was all done, he stood back and he said, “How the hell did I ever do that?” How the hell did we ever do this? We did it! And if this isn’t nice, what is?
There was one thing I forgot to say, and I promised I would say, and that is “We love you. We really do.”
From If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? (Even More) Expanded Third Edition: The Graduation Speeches and Other Words to Live By by Kurt Vonnegut, selected and introduced by Dan Wakefield. Copyright © 2013, 2014, 2016, 2020 by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Copyright Trust. Reprinted by permission of Seven Stories Press.