Episode 44: The (commencement) song remains the same

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Episode 44: The (commencement) song remains the same

Don’t be intimidated by anything, be enlarged and enrich by everything. For you are the sons and daughters of Michigan and you have everything it takes to be the hope of the world. Do not be blinded by prejudice disheartened by the times or discouraged by the system, but face the system. Challenge it, change it. Confront and correct it. Don’t let anything paralyze your mind, tie your hands, or defeat your spirit.

Hi, I’m Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.

Happy graduation season! That voice you just heard was celebrated Baptist preacher and professor Charles Adams as he sent off the Class of 1986.

On May 1, about 4,000 members of the Class of 21 gathered for a pre-taped virtual ceremony in Michigan Stadium. It was a weird hybrid – like a drive-in movie in the daytime. But the 90-minute production was top-notch and at least the students had a place to gather, cheer, boo, and take a bunch of pictures.

Commencement season tends to be jubilant and inspiring and the speakers brave enough to accept the challenge come in every form: funny, serious, controversial, boring. Michigan is no exception. Noted civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson delivered a stirring speech on May 2.

All sorts of interesting characters have spoken at U-M commencement from sitting U.S. presidents to the former CEO of Twitter. Rob Havey at the Bentley Library did me a huge solid by pulling audio samples of an eclectic batch of prior U-M speakers. So illuminating.

It’s said there’s nothing new in rock ‘n’ roll and it should come as no surprise there’s nothing new in commencement speeches either. The world needs YOU, don’t you know, and YOU have all the tools and knowledge to make things right. Of course, there are many, many ways to say that, so listen in. The next voice you’ll hear is filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, speaking to the Class of 1990.

For weeks, people have been asking me, “Did you write your commencement address yet?” It was very annoying. I felt that since I was returning to the scene of my collegiate career, I should approach this speech the same way I approach my term paper back then. Here was my method: Procrastinate. Then put it off for a little while. As the deadline nears it’s important to procrastinate a little more. And then when it was upon you, pull a nighter.
But in this case with this speech, I was worried about one thing. Is it possible to ask 14,000 people for an incomplete?
I decided not. It was 20 years ago this weekend that my own commencement took place in this same intimate setting. But I unlike you I did not attend. A whole bunch of my friends are here today. They were in that same class and they weren’t supposed to be here on that day in 1970. But instead, they’re their first commencement today. We’ve all decided to graduate with you.
… But even back then, behind my confidence and my optimism and my certainty about the world, there was a second me, one that lives in private, in secret. A second me who was confused and afraid, and clearly unprepared to go out into the world. For any of you out there who share this feeling, for whom confidence is a coin flipping from moment to moment, for whom on any given day and hold the brightest hopes and the grimmest is discouragement. For whom any argument can suddenly twist in the wind and change from absolute clarity to murky complexity. For all you people with at least two selves, I have this news. It never changes.
DH: See, Kasdan goes for the funny, here, and the audience is eating it up. But as any good speaker knows, you have to leave them with something…

LK: The hardest thing in the world is to let yourself know what you know.

Why? Because life is noisy. Everything we’re told everything about the way we’re raised and educated and bombarded by our culture, makes noise and that noise makes it very hard to hear the ticking of our own hearts. And it’s only when you hear the quiet tick from deep in your being that you can know what you know and trust what you know and be who you are.
Cartoonist Cathy Guisewite was true to her persona, cracking wise about unrealistic expectations, but encouraging new grads just the same.

CATHY GUISEWHITE: Give up the quest for perfection and shoot for five good minutes in a row. Remember what you love. If you want something to change, do something different. Let yourself graduate every four years and when you’re demoralized with no hope in your hearts and a pint of Haagen Dazs and your stomach, crawl over to the box of junk you never quite got organized, pull out your diploma, and remember the best clue of all: If you made it through this place, you can do anything. Congratulations

DH: Here’s author Joyce Carol Oates, sounding positively bookish.

DH: And no one will be surprised that documentarian Ken Burns took the history route, suggesting a simple method to secure one’s immortality.

Write. Write letters, keep journals besides your children, there is no sure way of achieving immortality. Write more send messages. Remember there is nothing more incredible than being a witness to history. And when we remember, it brings a refinement and an elegance that enters our lives and never leaves. Serve your country. Insist that we fight the right wars, convince your government that the real threat comes from within. As Lincoln said, governments always forget that. Insist that we support science and the arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the actual defense of our country. They just make our country worth defending.

DH: Next is Russian-American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky. He says some amazing things
about politicians and victimhood. The accent’s a little challenging, but stick with it.


Try not to set too much store by politicians, not so much because they are dumb or dishonest, which is more often than not the case, but because of the size of the of the job, which is too big even for the best among them. Don’t expect a just world to be brought about by an individual or by any particular group of them or by this or that political party doctrine system or a blueprint. All they or those can do, at best is to diminish a social evil not eradicate it.

At all costs, try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all parts of your body, be most vigilant of your index finger for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is the victim’s logo, the opposite of the V sign and the synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superior race, parents, the face of the moon, childhood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious And this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The moment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything.

Novelist and U-M professor Charlie Baxter was tuned into student angst when he presented.

And Toni Morrison did a little time warping with her remarks. She sounds so majestic here.

I want to suggest to you that while it may be true that the future, your future, is in your hands, I want to suggest to you that the past is also in your hands. Concentrating heavily on changing and managing the future, we don’t realize that the past is changeable as well.

Of all the platitudes the ones about refusing to cry over spilt milk or life goes on at the dead pass bury its dead. These sayings encourage us to dismiss what’s happened. To get on with it and not worry about yesterday or last year or last century.

I disagree. History has a flexible side. Of course, it can be repeated disastrously or be re-formed in new guises, but it can be critiqued.

It can be analyzed, and artists can re-invent it so that it yields new information about itself and about the present as well as the future.

And each time we critique and examine it, it can deliver other information and insight that in fact changes what we know about it. That is the heart of much of the education you have already had here.

That is the urgent enterprise.

These days when blood and rage bubble together in the streets. My point is you are not bound by the future and more importantly you are not bound by the past. The past is already different for you because it’s yours.

The past is already changing because we are re-examining it, listening to its deeper wider sound wings. The past can be more liberating than the future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies — and unleash its secrets and its truth. So I want to wish you not only the brightest of futures but also the best of pasts.

Thank you.

Well, much like Lawrence Kasdan, I did not attend my college graduation, which is strange because I love it so much. Each time I work at U-M commencement, I get a thrill stepping into that empty stadium. This year the sun was shining and the crew was playing “Here Comes The Sun” when I came out of the tunnel. With a little tear of gratitude, I said a prayer to my Wolverine Dad. I feel closest to him there. OK, then, toss your cap in the air, go crack the champagne and remember: It’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine. Go Blue!

Nothing new under the sun

Spring commencement at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on May 1, 2021. See more photos.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ The same could be said for commencement speeches. Listen in, as we revisit some of the most inspiring lines from past U-M commencement speakers like Lawrence Kasdan, Joyce Carol Oates, Ken Burns, and more.

In 1879, President Angell delivered an address titled “Making Higher Education Accessible to All,” a novel concept that has yet to be realized. In 1925, the University invited John Huston Finley, editor of the New York Times to speak on “The Mystery of the Mind’s Desire.” Fellow newsman Edward R. Murrow asked the Class of 1961, “Who Speaks for America?” while Jesse Jackson advocated “A Quest for Peace” in 1979. Of course, most alumni are aware that U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the “Great Society” in his commencement address of 1964.

Enjoy the 2021 Virtual Commencement

Thrill me

Spring commencement at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on May 1, 2021. See more photos.

The Ann Arbor campus rallied for the second year in a row to bring a fulfilling experience to its graduates, despite the presence of COVID-19. The 2021 hybrid in-person/virtual ceremony was unique, to be sure. Pods of students (about 4,000 in total) were seated in socially distant clusters, required to wear masks, and to graduate without families or friends in attendance. They watched on the screen as each dean “conferred” their degrees via video. Keynote speaker and human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson told the Class of ’21, “It’s easy to be discouraged, but I have great hope. And my hope resides in you.”

It’s a common theme throughout commencement-speech history. The job of that speaker is to remind every student that graduating from the University of Michigan is an unparalleled achievement. They have the power, the tools, the resources to change the world. It can be said many times, many ways, but the song remains the same: Congratulations.

In this episode of “Listen in, Michigan,” writer filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill) tells the Class of 1990 to disregard all the noise produced by society and “listen to the ticking of your own heart.” Documentarian Ken Burns has one directive for the Class of 1997: “Write.” And Toni Morrison attempts to bend time by convincing the Class of 1992 to “change the past” in order to ensure the best future.

Perhaps celebrated preacher and professor Charles Adams says it best as his words ring out across the field: “Be enlarged and enriched by everything, for you are the sons and daughters of Michigan.”

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