June 1: Commencement Day

Today is the anniversary of a commencement address that really was not a commencement address. The story begins with Mary Schmich, a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. On June 1, 1997 she published a column that was so insightful that it took on a life of its own.

Somehow an urban legend evolved that Schmich’s words were a commencement address by author Kurt Vonnegut to the 1997 graduates of MIT.  The truth is, however, Vonnegut did not present a commencement address to MIT in 1997, nor did he have anything to do with the writing of Schmich’s column.

The title of Schmich’s column was Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young, and here is an excerpt:

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.

Sing.

Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself . . . .

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it. Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen (1).

The word commencement comes to English via Latin. It simply means a beginning or a start. This probably explains the tone of most commencement speeches, which honor the accomplishments of graduates but focus primarily on what is to come in the real world. As a result, most commencement addresses are full of advice.

Today’s Challenge: Commence with the Advice
What advice would you give to graduates?  Imagine that have been asked to dispense commencement advice to a crowd of high school or college graduates.  What advice would you give them? As you write, select your verbs carefully.  Good advice hinges on vivid, precise verbs. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.
–Stephen Colbert, 2006 Knox College Commencement Address

1- Schmich, Mary. Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.  Chicago Tribune. 1 June 1997.

 

January 3:  Latin Phrase Day

Today is Memento Mori, a day to remember our mortality.  In Latin memento mori translates, “remember that you must die.”  The Latin phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris.  When a Roman general was paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot.  As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear:  “Memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).

Memento Mori is not just for Roman generals however.  After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  (2)

As Steve Jobs reminds us, people may die but their words live on; the same is true of languages, especially the Latin language.

Because of the great influence of the Roman Empire, Latin was the primary language of education in the West from the Middle Ages until the mid-20th Century.  The major works of science, law, history, religion, and philosophy were all written in Latin; therefore, for over a thousand years, proficiency in Latin was a must for any classically educated person.  

Today the English language has replaced Latin as the lingua franca, and many view Latin as just another dead language.  Nevertheless, the residue of Latin’s past influence is very much alive in English words with Latin roots as well as many legal, literary, and scientific terms.  For example, common words like dictionary, vocabulary, description, and civilization all derive from Latin.

Today’s Challenge:  Latin’s Not Dead Yet

What Latin phrase, expression, or motto might you use as the central focus of a commencement address?  Research the English translations of the Latin expressions listed below.  Select one, and like Steve Jobs did with memento mori, use the expression as a central theme for a brief motivational commencement address.

faber est suae quisque fortunae

astra inclinant, sed non obligant

aut viam inveniam aut faciam

bono malum superate

docendo disco, scribendo cogito

fortes fortuna adiuvat

honor virtutis praemium

magna est vis consuetudinis

nulla tenaci invia est via

omne trium perfectum

praemonitus praemunitus (3)

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
-Robert Frost

1-http://wealthmanagement.com/commentary/memento-mori-ancient-roman-cure-overconfidence

2-http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/oct/06/steve-jobs-pancreas-cancer

3-http://www.artofmanliness.com/2013/07/25/latin-words-and-phrases-every-man-should-know/