Wise Guys : Sages or Charlatans, Commencement Speakers Are Never at a Loss for Advice

It is that time of year when graduating high school and college seniors march forth into the real world with the wisdom of commencement speakers ringing in their ears.

There seems to be no shortage of sages and charlatans who are willing to expound on the perils of apathy and lawlessness and the rewards of virtue.

I wonder where they come from. Few people, it seems to me, can reach mature years and stand as flawless examples before the young.

Our politicians are venal, our educators obtuse, our scientists abstruse, our journalists irreverent, our theologians irrelevant and our poets obscure.


Who is left?

Our actors?

I made my first commencement address 14 years ago, for Immaculate Heart High School. When I received a note from the principal asking me to make the talk, I declined politely, pointing out that I couldn’t imagine what kind of advice I could give to 130 high school girls on the threshold of adult life.

I was tempted, though. The ceremony was to be held in the Hollywood Bowl, and it was unlikely that I would have another chance to perform at the bowl.


So I was an easy mark for the delegation of four I.H.H.S. senior girls who managed to get past the lobby guard at The Times and stormed into my office, looking very determined. I knew at once who they were.

“I give up,” I said.

Having thus surrendered, I had to write the speech.

I turned to my wife: “If you were a young woman,” I asked her, “just graduating from high school, what kind of advice would you like to hear from a man like me?”


“None,” she said.

I decided not to give them any advice at all, since they would probably have heard all they cared to hear from their teachers, their parents, their ministers and, above all, those fountains of all contemporary wisdom, their boyfriends.

The speech turned out to be a catalogue of the things I couldn’t tell them:

“I could tell you something of the world you are about to enter. That’s traditional, I believe. I could tell you we are living in difficult times--in dangerous and turbulent times. I could say there is violence, crime and poverty. There is greed and folly in high places. There is bigotry. The very earth we love is being soiled and plundered, and there is no peace.


“But you know all that. It’s rather ridiculous, isn’t it, to think of high school graduates as just entering the world, when they have been in and of the world all along?”

I wound up giving them some advice after all. A man who never had a daughter could hardly resist giving advice to girls.

“I could simply tell you to enjoy life, and to know the difference between enjoying life and burning it out. I could tell you that joy and fulfillment are to be found in the small daily events and decisions of life.

“I could say that life can not be lived very successfully in the abstract. It is all very inspiring to sit at the feet of the philosopher, with one’s toes in the grass, but very often the nice cool feel of the grass on one’s toes is more eloquent of one’s self and one’s purpose and promise than the words of the philosopher. It is all very wonderful to look up to the mountains, but there is surely as much beauty in the blades of grass and the pebbles at one’s feet.”


I told them about an incident that had taken place not long before at our house in Baja. I was looking out a window and saw my wife walking along the desolate road, not another creature in sight but the Airedale at her side. It occurred to me that I had put them in that unlikely place by choices I had made a long time before. Of course, the Airedale was there because he couldn’t help it. But my wife had no excuse. She had made a choice, too, just as I had.

I would probably tell them the same thing today. They have freedom of choice, and the choices they make will alter and shape their lives and the lives of everyone about them, in the most incalculable ways.

A few years after I had addressed the Immaculate Heart graduates, the senior class at Occidental College asked me to give their commencement address. I went to Occidental to meet with the senior council, and I asked them what it was they expected of me.

“Well, Mr. Smith,” a young man said, “we don’t expect you to come up here and make a landmark speech.”


I think I can say, from all the reports, that I succeeded in not making a landmark speech.

And I don’t think the world is the least bit worse off for it.