Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons delivered the commencement speech at the University of Montana yesterday and I heard it went well. He’s a great actor and reportedly a great guy.
Few schools are able to attract that kind of star power. Small high schools in particular are often thrown back on the unpleasant expedient of asking some local politician to speak, or just bagging the commencement speech altogether.
That’s why, as a public service, I have crafted a speech that I believe is inspiring, somewhat humorous and just generic enough that anyone can deliver it. You could even prop up a cardboard cutout of the speaker of your choice and have someone else read this speech aloud.
Or have one of the graduates create a hologram of some famous person from history—Will Rogers, Joan of Arc, etc.—to “deliver” the speech. One of the graduates will know how to do this. These kids know everything. So, here we go:
As I look out on this sea of mortarboards, which is all that is visible to me since every last one of you is staring at a smart phone, I am reminded of my own high school years. (Note to school administrators: I’m not sure Joan of Arc went to high school.)
Those years were very important to me. They taught me that absolutely nothing matters more than how good-looking you are and whether you make the varsity team. Just kidding. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Abe Lincoln was uglier than a mud fence and didn’t even make the volleyball team, despite his great height, and look how successful he was. Gen. George B. McClellan, on the other hand, who was trounced by Lincoln in the presidential election of 1864, was a dashing teenager who earned letters in three sports.
I’m not saying all you beautiful, athletic people out there are doomed to failure, or that you homely and uncoordinated students are going to prosper. I’m just saying that high school is a lousy predictor of future happiness.
Speaking of the future, I feel it is incumbent on me to address that subject. As soon you leave this building and take off those black robes, you need to start thinking about your future. Well, the first thing you should do is take a shower because those robes are like a walking steam bath.
After that, though, you need to think about the future. As difficult and terrifying as high school might have been for some of you, I’m afraid the future is a pretty scary place, too, and I’m not thinking only of Donald Trump.
I’m thinking of all the debt so many of you are going to ring up in college. Even if Bernie Sanders is elected, you can forget about free college. He would need to get that through Congress and Congress will never pass free college. Congress thinks overwhelming debt builds character.
Speaking of Trump, I have to warn you that there are bullies in the world outside of high school. The same characteristics that make some people tremendous bullies, unfortunately, also sometimes lead to great wealth.
And just as some people never stop being bullies, some people never learn simply to ignore bullies, as we saw repeatedly during the Republican presidential primary debates. When there were 18 or 20 candidates, it seemed like high school on steroids.
While I’m on the subject, would you earnest young people please try to do something about the political system you’re inheriting from us? We seem to have made a complete hash of the thing and you could hardly do worse. And please hurry. It’s hard to say how much time you’ve got before it falls apart utterly.
Also, I think you’ve only got 10 to 20 years before the “singularity” happens and artificial general intelligence—the sum of all our machines—starts replicating ever-more sophisticated versions of itself, until coming to the conclusion that human beings are no longer necessary.
That will need to be fixed for sure. I don’t know how you can go creeping around trying to head off the singularity without the computers getting wind of it, but good luck. You’ll need it.
But listen to me, going on and on about the things that need fixing. The good news is that you don’t have to listen to people like me. In fact, if anyone has heard a word I’ve said, please look up from your phone now.
Well, anyway, if you were listening I was going to tell you that during the next few years, generally speaking, you will be more alive—physically and mentally—than during any other period of your lives.
It’s a big, big world out there, bigger than the screen on the biggest smart phone. If I were you, I’d put that phone away for a couple of years and go exploring, down the block, across the state or on the other side of the world.
We’ll keep an eye on things until you get back.