An Academic Inaugural Address?

Americans love a good commencement address. Every year, as graduation approaches, we return to our favorites from years past, bestowing some speeches a reverence akin to scripture or Lincoln's encomium at Gettysburg. Steve Jobs at Stanford (2005) and J.K. Rowling at Harvard (2008) are just two examples of addresses that have reached across time and place to inspire people of various ages and backgrounds. 

But lately I've been wondering: Why do we invest so much interest in a commencement address, on words of wisdom for the end of an academic journey, but very little on the beginning?


I realize, of course, that by calling it a "commencement" address, schools signify that the occasion is marking not an end but a beginning, the entrance into the "real world." But my point still stands: What about the commencing of the years of high school, college, or graduate school? Why not make that moment a bigger priority?

What if we switched it up and colleges sought famous speakers to address incoming freshmen? What if schools tasked commencement speakers with imparting knowledge for how to become a successful student -- for how to achieve academic success, manage temptations, hone study skills, and choose a major or program of studies?

I'd like to see this trend develop. Most of the time, many seniors -- especially those in college -- are in no frame of mind to pay attention to their commencement speaker. The graduation ceremony caps a festive week of saying goodbye and preparing to depart. Their minds dwell on other priorities.

But at the beginning of freshman year, students are usually hungry and curious and very much in need of counsel. They need a roadmap for the next four years.

What do readers think? What should we call this new address? And, if you could go back in time, if you were a freshman in college, what would you want to hear? And what would you say to freshmen if you were the speaker?


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