Values and Messages Conveyed in College Commencement Speeches
Using content analysis, values and messages were extracted from 90 American university commencement speeches delivered between 1990 and 2007. Overall the most frequent messages in descending order were: Help Others, Do the Right Thing, Expand Your Horizons, Be True to Yourself, Never Give Up, Appreciate Diversity, Cherish Special Others, and Seek Balance. Two messages were delivered more often at women’s colleges than at coeducational universities, and more often by female speakers than male speakers. These were: Be True to Yourself and Cherish Special Others. Discussion focuses on these messages in light of contemporary American societal values and sex role expectations.
KeywordsValuesContent analysisCollege commencement addresses
College commencement addresses have been described variously as “boring or predictable ‘change the world’ types of talks” (L. Hicks, personal communication, November 10, 2006), meant to “help boost your confidence, inspire, motivate, uplift the spirit, empower, etc.” (http://www.graduationwisdom.com), “a reflection on lessons learned the hard way” (Conan 2003), meant to put recent hard work (or not so hard work) into the context of the future (C-Span 2006), and as a chance for speakers to share dreams that guide the graduates’ priorities in life (Boyko and Colen 1996).
The preceding descriptions are impressions. The purpose of this study is to extract messages and values of commencement speeches in a more formal empirical way. The rationale for this project is that such data may reflect core values of contemporary American culture. It is important for counselors to understand the culture in which they and their clients live. College commencement speeches, in a sense, herald the passing of an older generation’s wisdom to the generation that is poised to “take the torch.”
Values refer to the explicit or implicit beliefs about what is desirable (Allport 1961; Rokeach 1973). They function as guides for behavior. Values of individuals can be ascertained by asking them directly, administering a test to them, or by observing their behavior (i.e., manifest values). Values of a group, culture, or nation may be expressed via customs, mission statements, and popular pastimes (Durkheim 1973 ). They can also be reflected in other cultural phenomena like songs, inaugural addresses, and commencement speeches. For example, song lyrics may reflect and affect social and political movements of the time (Cole 1971). Ostlund and Kinnier (1997) analyzed a sample of the popular songs from four decades (the 1950s through the 1980s) and found the theme of romantic love in 75% of the most popular songs. They suggested that in spite of the changing cultural landscape during those four decades, romantic love remained an enduring preoccupation of American teenagers. Kinnier et al. (2004) content analyzed 19th and 20th century U. S. presidential inaugural addresses. Values most often mentioned in those addresses, and which may reflect core American values, were liberty, belief in God, patriotism, justice, and personal responsibility. Kinnier et al. (1994) analyzed content of obituaries appearing in the American Psychologist journal, which the authors argued may reflect the values or ideals of American psychologists. The modal description of the deceased included values such as ‘hard working,’ ‘independent minded,’ and ‘dedicated mentor/teacher.’ Kinnier et al. (2007) analyzed the speeches of Nobel Peace Prize laureates to ascertain their messages to the world. The values they most frequently extolled were peace, hope, security, justice, responsibility, liberty, tolerance, altruism, God, and truth. In the current study we analyze messages from American college commencement speeches.
College Commencement Speeches
In 1900 only 2% of Americans completed a college degree; by 2000 over 50% attended college and more than 25% obtained a degree (Caplow et al. 2001). Speakers are often recognized national or local leaders (Rutherford 2004). Inviting media stars is a recent phenomenon (M. Weiner, personal communication, Nov. 2, 2006). Speakers come from a variety of backgrounds. An analysis of 150 available commencement addresses delivered in 2004 by Birdwhistle et al. (2005) revealed that 20% of the speakers came from universities, 25% were from government, 22% were from community service areas, 10% were journalists, and 10% were from the art world.
Messages in the Speeches
Commencement speeches vary in length. Winston Churchill delivered a very short speech. He rose and stood silently for a few minutes before uttering the words, “Never, never, never, never, never… give up.” In contrast, Judith Resnik (2006) presented a review of sex discrimination in America and international law. Her transcript contained 56 footnotes.
Few studies have examined the messages contained within the commencement speeches; most speeches were not even recorded or saved. More are now saved in computerized archives. In one of the few studies conducted, Rutherford (2004) examined speeches across a span of nearly a century and concluded that the speeches reflect society’s traditional expectations for graduates. Conan (2003) characterized the speeches as primarily a dispensing of advice and challenging the graduates to make the world a better place. Birdwhistle et al. (2005) examined speeches from 1 year and reported that many of the speeches attempted to portray the ingredients of the “good life.”
Messages as Influenced by Sex
In the 19th century the vast majority of college students were male (Wolf-Wendel 2002) and there were few women’s colleges. As the 20th century progressed, more women’s colleges opened and more universities became coeducational (Wolf-Wendel 2002). Starting in the 1960s many women’s colleges closed due to decreasing enrollment as the formerly men’s colleges were pressured to open their doors to women (Gordon 2004). Today, more than 50% of college students and of recent graduates are women (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2005).
In the early part of the 20th century women were rarely invited to speak to the graduates (Resnik 2006), but that also has changed. In 2004 Birdwhistle et al. (2005) noted that 21% of the speakers were female. Women’s colleges are much more likely to invite female speakers (Resnik 2006). For example, at Bryn Mawr, a women’s college, Resnik’s (2006) review of the college archives revealed that only three women were invited to be commencement speakers prior to 1940 but only two men have been invited since 1979. In 2006, female speakers constituted 82% of the 47 commencement speeches at women’s colleges (Women’s College Coalition 2006).
There have been few studies that have examined the messages of female speakers. Of the few that have, Rutherford (2004) found that female speakers were more apt to address individual choice in life and Ragins and Scandura (1994) noted that female speakers emphasized the importance of graduates spending quality time in setting their career goals. More research on possible sex differences (both female speakers and speeches delivered at women’s colleges) is needed.
Purpose of the Current Study
Commencement speeches may be a rich source of data that reflect important societal values. Few studies have attempted to mine that data source. In this study we analyze the value messages of 90 speeches delivered between 1990 and 2007 at American colleges. The main question is: What are the most frequent value messages delivered to the graduates? The second question addresses sex differences: Are messages delivered to women’s colleges different from those delivered to coeducational colleges and do male and female speakers offer similar or different messages?
Sample of Commencement Addresses
Criteria for Inclusion
We first established a time frame for the addresses. Prior to 1990, few addresses were archived in any form. Most of them were reduced to excerpts. Thus the time period between 1990 and 2007 was chosen as the time frame to reflect a contemporary period.
Only addresses delivered in the United States at colleges or universities that awarded at least a Bachelor of Arts and/or Bachelor of Sciences degrees were included in the selection pool.
Only speakers from outside the university were included in the pool. Graduating student speakers and local faculty and administrators were excluded. Invited outside speakers typically had attained significant eminence or accomplishments in their careers and were the focus of this study.
In order to obtain more diversity no speaker and no coeducational institution were represented more than once.
Only speeches that were either available from the university or from a published electronic or print source were included.
All commencement addresses that met the criteria listed above were considered part of the selection pool. Several procedures were employed for procuring as many of those addresses as possible. Listings of available speeches were obtained from internet searches such as Birdwhistle et al.’s (2005) listing of over 200 speeches and C-Span’s listings of “extraordinary speeches” of 2005 and 2006 (c-span.org/commencement/index2005.asp and 2006.asp). A listing of women’s colleges was obtained from the Women’s College Coalition (2006) and augmented with a listing from Univsource (2004).
The first author contacted administrative offices at numerous colleges and universities via phone, e-mail or snail mail and requested copies of commencement addresses. The first author offered to pay any copying or mailing expenses.
A total of 266 speeches that met the inclusion criteria were obtained. The original study was a 2 × 2 design (male versus female speakers, coeducational versus women’s colleges). Unfortunately there were too few male speakers at women’s colleges to make a meaningful comparison. The remaining three groups were male speakers at coeducational universities, female speakers at coeducational universities, and female speakers at women’s colleges.
The sample for each of the three groups was generated by stratified random selection from the pool of 266 in the following manner. A list of all speakers and the universities where they spoke was created. For each comparison group addresses were selected until there were 30 in each. We cross-checked every selection to insure a speaker was not selected more than once. If a speaker was selected twice, he or she was removed and another was selected from the master list.
Following the recommendations of Strauss and Corbin (1998), two readers (the first author who was an advanced doctoral student and the second author who is a licensed psychologist) read a random majority of the speech transcripts, noting specific value themes (Rokeach 1973), and keeping track of the frequency of recurring themes. Their descriptions of the themes were revised as they read more speeches, and each reader independently constructed a list of themes with definitions.
The readers then met to discuss their findings and reach a consensus. In this process they created an initial list of 10 common themes mentioned most frequently in the speeches they had read. They alternatively independently and then collaboratively read more speeches and refined their summary of the themes which resulted in a final number of eight themes.
Next a team of three raters were recruited to read all of the speeches and rate the presence or absence of each theme in each speech. In procedures described by Carley (1990, 1993), the raters (three doctoral students in a Counseling Psychology program) were trained and then independently read all of the speeches. Their ratings were entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and transferred to an SPSS data editor. Inter-rater reliability was estimated using Kappa coefficients. Descriptive statistics which included sample demographics and percentage of speakers who mention each major value message. Groups were compared using Chi-square analyses.
Ninety speakers (60 females and 30 males) were selected from the pool of available speeches. By their own admission in the speeches, not all were college graduates themselves. One (former vice president Dick Cheney) was expelled from college twice. The speakers ranged in age from their mid-thirties to their seventies at the time of their commencement addresses.
Occupations of the commencement speakers (N = 90)
Percent of Sample
Journalists, Non-fictional Writers
Artists, Creative Writers and Entertainers
Academic Administrators and Faculty
Scientists, Medical Professionals
Athletes, Athletic Management
The 20 women’s colleges were all small private institutions. Only two had a student body of over 2,500. Thirteen of the women’s colleges were on the east coast, five were from the Midwest, and two were from the west coast. The coeducational colleges/universities ranged from large state universities to small private colleges. They were scattered widely across the country.
Kappa coefficients and percentage of occurrence for commencement speech messages (N = 90)
Percentage of Occurrence
1. Help Others
2. Do the Right Thing
3. Expand Your Horizons
4. Be True to Yourself
5. Never Give Up
6. Appreciate Diversity
7. Cherish Special Others
8. Seek Balance
Messages from the Speakers
The speeches tended to follow a similar format and flow. Typically the speakers first thanked the administration for inviting them, encouraged the graduates to thank their parents for supporting them, and noted the pressure for speakers to be succinct and memorable. Many speakers said a few things about their own college experiences and their rise to success after college. A common joke was an acknowledgement that the speaker could not remember what was said at his or her own commencement. Many speakers referred to recent news events, especially in the context of struggles that lay ahead for the graduates. Speakers at the women’s colleges often referred to sex discrimination and the continuing struggle for equality. There was often the hopeful but challenging message of ‘we have come a long way,’ but ‘there is much more to do.’
Most used humor, usually limited to irony. Some, particularly when discussing world politics and environmental concerns, were somewhat pessimistic while suggesting there was still hope if humans were willing to make sacrifices. None were as pessimistic as Woody Allen who invited the graduates to choose between a path to “despair and utter hopelessness” and a path to “total extinction” (Colwell 2004). Most speakers concluded with a few tips for the graduates.
Help Others. This message, delivered by 64% of the speakers, referred to a focus on generosity and compassion. It included such phrases as ‘give back,’ ‘serve humanity,’ and ‘make the world a better place.’ For example, Quindlen (2000) implored graduates to “once in awhile take the money you would have spent on beer and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Be a big brother or sister.” Trigiani (2003) asked that “When one of us is crying, we should hear it and take it seriously.” Ballard (1992) concluded that “… life is never fulfilled, your journey never over until you take time to give back a portion of what has been given to you.”
Do the Right Thing. This message, conveyed by 61% of the speakers, referred to a sense of morality and responsibility reflected by such phrases as ‘do your duty,’ ‘have integrity,’ and ‘value higher order principles.’ For example, McGuire (2005) said, “You must never be silent when evidence of injustice cries out for an advocate, a voice, a champion” and Wright (2004) told the audience, “Being honest, keeping your word, or being a person of integrity, may sound ‘Old School.’ But I have no doubt these very positive attributes are still necessary in the world you will now enter.”
Expand Your Horizons. This message, delivered by 52% of the speakers, referred to the encouragement that graduates be ambitious and seek challenges throughout their lives. For example, McGarry (2004) encouraged graduates to “find a challenge that is right to you.” Spellings (2006) suggested that “we all must be lifelong learners.” MacCormack (2003) warned, “Don’t be too rigid in setting your direction for the future because you might just miss the opportunities along the way that really shape the journey and are truly hidden blessings.”
Be True to Yourself. This message, stated by 48% of the speakers, was reflected by phrases like, ‘identity your passion,’ ‘don’t give up your dreams,’ ‘be yourself,’ ‘follow your heart,’ and ‘seek success on your own terms.’ For example, Keegan (1994) was adamant in his exclamation that, “NOTHING is as important to your life and to your success as your belief in yourself!!!” (sic.) Edelman (1992) invited graduates to “listen for the ‘sound of the genuine’ within yourself.” Khouri (1994) cautioned that “the world will provide you with every imaginable obstacle, but the one most difficult to overcome will be the lack of faith in yourself.”
Never Give Up. This message, mentioned by 43% of the speakers, referred to a focus on persistence and determination and included such phrases as ‘reach for the stars,’ ‘there is no limit,’ and ‘you can do whatever you set your mind to do.’ Harmon (2006) observed that “Leaders never give up. Think Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Geraldine Ferraro.” Halberstam (2004) suggested that “Succeeding is more than anything else picking yourself up on the bad days and deciding that you will not be defeated.” Winston Churchill may have given the shortest but clearest commencement speech ever delivered. As observed by Vincent (2004), “After he was praised effusively in the introduction and after the thunderous applause had finally dimmed, he stood silently before the expectant audience. He stood a long time, not saying a word. The audience waited, expectantly for the supreme orator of our age to begin. And it waited. And it waited. Finally, in that voice that continues to resonate down to our generation, he bellowed out, ‘Never, never, never, never, never… give up.’ And he sat down!”
Appreciate Diversity. This message, conveyed by 32% of the speakers, referred to tolerance, respect for, and appreciation for differences among people. For example, Wright (2004) stressed that, “… we are in the same boat together and we need to cooperate for the good of all.” Edelman (1992) referred to our nation as a ‘mosaic’ and Allende (2000) noted that “We all belong to the same extended family, we have the same origin, we are all the children of an ebony Eve born in the heart of Africa thousands of years ago.”
Cherish Special Others. The message, mentioned by 32% of the speakers, referred to an appreciation of the graduates’ most intimate relationships, including parents, children, partners, best friends, mentors, and protégés. For example, Hunt (2004) advised graduates to “be thrilled and thankful you are loved—by your God, by your family, by your friends. Love back. Especially cherish your family and children.” Walsh (2000) humorously predicted that “You will be more like your parents than you imagine… You will discover your similarities, count on it. To sharpen the irony, the qualities in your parents that annoy you today are likely to be exactly the ones that, later on, your kids will point out in you. So, until then, try giving your parents a break and have a sense of humor about all their qualities.”
Seek Balance. This message, delivered by 17% of the speakers, referred mostly to balancing work and play and included phrases like, ‘don’t take life too seriously’ and ‘take time to smell the roses.’ For example, Goodwin (1998) noted that the psychologist, Erik Erikson observed that the fullest lives attain a balance of work, love, and play. Spellings (2006) advised the graduates to not “be in such a hurry to get where you are going that you miss some amazing scenery along the way.”
Percentage of commencement speeches conveying each message and chi-square differences for female speakers at women’s colleges (FSW), female speakers at coeducational universities (FSU), and male speakers at coeducational universities (MSU)
Percentage of Occurrence in Each Group
1. Help Others
2. Do the Right Thing
3. Expand Your Horizons
4. Be True to Yourself
5. Never Give Up
6. Appreciate Diversity
7. Cherish Special Others
8. Seek Balance
Help others, do the right thing, expand your horizons, be true to yourself, never give up, appreciate diversity, cherish special others, and seek balance in life. In a “nutshell” that is the main message delivered to graduates of American universities over the past 20 years. Female speakers (especially when they were addressing graduates at women’s colleges) more often than male speakers encouraged graduates to be true to themselves and cherish the special people in their lives.
The top two messages (Help Others and Do the Right Thing) are moral messages. They also may be two of the most universal religious values (see Kinnier et al. 2000; Peterson and Seligman 2004). The two values are clearly related to the “Golden Rule” which has been called the most universal spiritual value of them all (e.g., Bell 1994; Christians and Traber 1997; Hick 1992; Kane 1994). Helping Others was viewed by a majority of public university freshmen in a 2001 national survey as a very important objective in their lives (Cooperative Institutional Research Program 2001). In effect, the results of the current study further support the universal acceptance of altruism and moral responsibility of all individuals.
Most of the other messages delivered in the speeches seem to be more about the individual taking care of himself or herself. The speakers encouraged the graduates to be themselves, follow their own dreams, and never give up on those dreams. This is the American value of individualism (Galbraith 1996; Kluckholn and Strodtbeck 1961) Individualism is well represented in the speeches.
The mainly female exhortation to be true to oneself is consistent with the philosophy of feminism (e.g., Bartky 1990; Noddings 2002) which advocates that women should resist sexist societal pressures to conform and instead follow their own passion in life. The message of cherishing special relationships was also influenced by gender in the current study. That finding is consistent with the tendency for women to be more affiliative than men in contemporary American society (Chodorow 1990).
Our sampling procedure was adequate, in our opinion, but two inherent problems weakened the study. The first problem was that many speeches simply were not available or were not archived. The second problem was that there were too few males invited to speak at women’s colleges, leaving us without the fourth cell needed to create a fully-crossed 2 × 2 design. Thus we could not properly evaluate main effects and interactions.
A second weakness of the study is reflected by the somewhat low reliability ratings or low Kappa coefficients of some of the messages. The main problem that was reported by the raters was that several of the messages seemed to overlap. For example, ‘risk taking’ could be seen as a part of the theme of ‘Never Give Up’ (as in ‘don’t be afraid to fail’) and/or a part of ‘Expand Your Horizons’ (as in ‘accept challenges’). Another example is that the message to be honest or truthful could be a part of ‘Do the Right Thing’ or ‘Be True to Yourself.’ Giving to others could be a part of both Help Others and Cherish Special Others. These ambiguities may have lowered some of those Kappa coefficients. The messages with the lower coefficients must be interpreted with caution.
Implications for Research and Practice
One purpose of this kind of research is to uncover the values of specific subcultures using indirect methods like analyzing artifacts, products, documents, popular song lyrics, obituaries, and speeches. This kind of methodology can supplement and complement the methodologies that directly ask respondents to identify their values. Together the two may yield a fuller understanding of the dominant values that undergird subcultures. Future research could replicate across generations and subcultures. For example, what will the predominant commencement address messages be 10 years from now and are the messages different in other cultures or nations?
In our opinion the major use of these results in practice is related to the function that “words of wisdom” serve. The eminent speakers offer graduates and others inspiration, direction, hope, and courage. And that, of course, is one of the goals of most educational endeavors.