Top Commencement Speeches of the 20th Century

Commencement speeches are considered a formality, which students just wait to pass so that they can proceed with the graduation day. But some speeches leave a mark. They are unforgettable and leave the students motivated to do something extraordinary in their future. Some of the most remarkable speeches delivered at graduation day are as follows:

Winston Churchill, Harrow School (1941)

Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense.” Said Churchill at the speech he delivered at Harrow School in 1941. Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, never lost a chance to give a call for the national spirit. He believed in the power of standing the ground and considered it his duty to inculcate the spirit in the fresh graduates who were going to take the reins of the country soon.

He couldn’t emphasize the point enough and called for not giving up again and again. The essence of his address culminated in these words. Churchill was a fighter against odds, and there is no doubt that he wanted to leave that spirit to everyone in Great Britain, in the face of adversity; in the face of the enemy.

George Marshall, Harvard (1947)

Harvard is an institute that has turned out some of the greatest minds of all times. Addresses delivered at Harvard hold ground and are celebrated as such. George Marshall was another patriot, a veteran soldier, and a statesman who shaped the history of the USA. He played significant roles in both the World Wars and as a statesman, improved America’s economic structure.

“Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos.” He said, referring to how America’s efforts will be directed to restore the economy of Europe and to strive towards global economic health.

In the seemingly unremarkable address, the war veteran, then-Secretary of state, had laid down the plan for rebuilding the world economy and America’s future foreign policy. In just under 11 minutes, he had stressed the post-war challenge and said words that were to become a historic message. He was received in the awe and reference that he deserved being a veteran of the war, and people were delighted to see him. He came as a bearer of a message that was to be recognized as significant, many years later.

John F. Kennedy American University (1963)

On June 10, 1963, John F. Kennedy delivered one of the most significant speeches of his time, titled The Peace Strategy. John F. Kennedy delivered this speech at the height of his power. He knew that any words he spoke would have far-reaching consequences. The speech started with the mention of peace. Kennedy stated how people had wronged the idea of peace. In the setting of the cold war and the heightened race for nuclear arms between the Soviet Union and America, Kennedy considered it his duty to lay forward a plan for maintaining and establishing peace.

Kennedy was a man of power, and so was his words. Though delivered as the commencement address at a University, it was covered widely by the press and made available to the Soviets to make sure Kennedy’s peace strategy reached everywhere.

“Let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.” He said while making it clear that peace was what he aimed, for America and the world.

Russell Baker, Connecticut College (1995)

Russell Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and columnist, knows how to deliver a speech with just the right amount of satire and class to reach out to college students. During his speech, he tried to make one point clear, that the world out there was a mess and the freshly graduated students who are going to step into it, must be careful.

Started by giving the students a peek into his graduation day, where he had to endure a speaker who spoke for many hours, he vowed to keep his speech short. Not giving the students clichéd advice about going out into the world, Russell, in fact, told them not to.

The best advice I can give anyone about going out into the world is this: Don’t do it. I have been out there. It is a mess. When you get out there in the world, try not to make it any worse than it already is.”

Using examples from history, he told the students that to be careful, or else they will be killed like so many significant figures in the past. A perfect combination of subtle comedy and unorthodox advice, the class of 1995 of Connecticut College would remember it for times to come.

Alan Alda, Connecticut College (1980)

“If you feel a little off-balance, it’s understandable. Adulthood has come upon you suddenly, and you’re not all that sure you’re ready for it. I think that sometimes I’m not ready for adulthood either, yours or mine.’ 

Alan Alda’s speech to the class of 1980 of Connecticut College, was an emotion-packed revelation of what every parent feels at their child’s graduation ceremony. This was the class where her daughter Eve was also graduating. The speech was a letter to his daughter. He stated all that a parent feels and expects from their child who is now going off into the world. He narrated the fears parents carried in their minds. And just as he would advise his daughter, he advised all the students present not to be scared of being off-balance. Moreover, he said that they should take their chances and be ready for the occasional instances of failure that they may have to face.

Indeed, it was one of the most powerful speeches as it related the minds and hearts of every parent out there, clinging on tightly as they send their sons and daughters off into the world.

Nora Ephron, Wellesley College (1996)

Nora Ephron, an American journalist, writer, and filmmaker, while delivering the graduation day speech to her fellow alums in the Wellesley College, humored them with the wit she was known for. But she advised them rather sternly about certain realities. Nora related that she had changed careers and husbands and knew what the world was like. She told the girls how things have changed since she graduated, and things were getting better for women, but she advised them to beware of the still-existent cultural values that suppress women.

Her speech turned into a powerful message for all women. She told them that things would change and in time, the girls sitting here will not be the same, forever stuck to their seats and mute. They will be different, and they have the capability to become what they have never even dreamt of.

Kurt Vonnegut’s, Agnes Scott College (1999)

The famous author found himself being called for a lot of commencement speeches in the United States, owing to his take on humanity and morality. At his speech at the Agnes Scott College in 1999, he discussed how we could never stop the higher-ups from being vengeful. He explained how the world will always be steered towards war. He further showed the students the reality of the approaching millennium. With the television becoming available, everyone will develop a desire to become an entertainer.

He went on to warn the students first to learn the basics of humanity before they took up entertainment or anything else. He urged them to forgive the trespassers and not always remain hungry for vengeance. A beautiful message on humanity and forgiveness, the speech remains unforgettable.

Final Verdict

Commencement speeches are always an ordinary affair, unless an orator or a person, who has shaped the course of life in some way, takes up the podium and pours his years of experience of life into the cups of fresh graduates. These speeches do inspire one or two of the class, who then do something worthy to take up the podium many years later.