An Imaginary Commencement Speech at Yale

May 15, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

This year, Bill Clinton is addressing the graduating senior class of Yale during its Class Day exercises on May 24. Though this class was the very first that I admitted as the Dean of Admissions here, I cannot blame the class leadership for choosing him rather than me to provide their sendoff.

However, up to the point he was announced, I confess that I was holding onto a faint hope that they might ring me up. So I prepared some remarks just in case.


Parents, friends and members of the Yale Class of 2010:

I was pleased, though surprised, by the invitation to speak at your graduation. Everyone who keeps the admissions gate expects to be the object of many heartfelt solicitations. Once we open the gate, however, we also expect to be more or less instantly forgotten, if not trampled, by the students who hurtle through it.

So how strange that you wanted to hear from me again, now that everything has been said and done and accomplished. I took your measure once, but that was in days very long ago, before you grew in greatness, acquiring the vast store of experience, knowledge and wisdom at which your relatives and friends have gathered here to marvel. What could I offer you now?

Moreover, I have just finished admitting your shiny new replacements. You still think of yourselves as the heart and soul of the college, the jewel in the crown, the senior class. It is, in fact, hard to stand here in the sun and the radiating satisfactions of this wonderful day, and imagine the campus without you.

I hope you will not find this inevitable departure to be sad or disturbing: you can expect it every time you embark on new work or migrate to new surroundings. In addition, your leaving here is necessary to the ceaseless, cascading renewal of our institutional and community life, a river that never pauses in its rush to the sea. So as your bark sails on the tide, we are pleased to see you at the helm, confidently scanning the horizon, eager for what lies ahead.

Before you disappear entirely, however, perhaps we might pause and cast a look back to the moment you introduced yourself to us. Presumably, you came to us boasting of extraordinary potential. If you were worried that your resume at age 17 or 18 would not bear close scrutiny, you were probably correct. We knew that accounts of your accomplishment were likely to be mildly inflated, and that some of the most important things about you were either hidden from us or still to develop. We overlooked all that. We tried instead to picture who you could become, if we combined your obvious raw potential and your high aspirations with Yale's opportunities. We are always optimists about these things. At the same time, we know we are only placing a series of interesting bets. To undertake the education of students is to give hostages to fortune.

So how did we make out? How have you done? Surprisingly few of us know the answers. This in itself is a big change for most of you. A series of pesky and interfering adults monitored, supervised and perhaps strongly directed what you did at home and in high school. Here you started to carve out a life of your own, on your own terms. You addressed the vast resources put at your disposal by one of the world's truly great universities, and you had to decide for yourself what to do with them.

So what could it possibly matter how I might evaluate your choices? What matters, and this is the heart of what I want to say today, is not how I might assess what you have done, or how your professors graded you, or what your friends and family might say, or even how a professional school or employer is going to view you, but rather how you would now evaluate yourself.

I wonder if you have thought to do this as yet, to measure yourself by standards that you would have to justify and explain, not to us, but only to the man or woman in the mirror. Not only are you the only one in a position to make a full and candid assessment, but you are the one to whom the assessment ultimately matters.

What do you know now that you did not know four years ago? What can you do now that you could not do four years ago? Could you, as they say in the exam question, support your answer with specific examples?

"I managed to get good grades" would not be a good response, at least for most of you. You knew how to do that before you got here. It would be equally uninteresting to hear about organizations you started, or the internships you snagged, or the graduate schools you will attend. For most of you, these kinds of things are simply extensions of past vectors, evidence that you understand how to manage your personal advancement in the world, perhaps in greater detail or greater depth than you did before, but not evidence for what I would call the personal transformation made possible by a liberal education.

So what criteria will you use for self-assessment? Actually, this is one of the questions we most hoped that you would learn to ask in new ways while you were here. If part of your task is to develop your own standards, then by the nature of the case I cannot provide you with the right measuring tool. I can only tell you that there are few things more important than learning how to rely less on how others see you and more on courageous self-examination.

That said, I cannot resist making a few suggestions about some possible questions, just to flesh out the kind of assessment I have in mind:

•Are you graduating with broader views of what you might do in life compared to the ideas you had when you arrived?

•To what degree have you learned how to lead by subordinating your own ambition to the common good, rather than vice versa?

•Have you mastered a mode of inquiry, or developed anything that could constitute a permanent and fertile source of intellectual interest?

•How much more did you contribute to classes and organizations and jobs than you took from them?

•Have you as yet loved anyone or anything beyond reason?

•Have you learned how and why to risk a serious, public failure?

•How well can you sustain a determined, focused and disciplined attempt to solve an important problem?

•How much more inclined and more able are you to recognize and appreciate real genius, whatever its mode of expression?

•What have you become willing to do without getting paid, graded or recognized?

•How much room have you been able to leave for the inconvenient exercise of compassion, kindness and generosity?

These questions derive from my own experiences and observations, and you are welcome to edit them, add to them or replace them. But at the risk of disappointing those of us who knew you here, and above all yourself, you are not free to avoid the daunting task rendering yourself an accounting. I recommend taking a shot at doing this now, before you sail away to the next challenge. The exercise could be most revealing.

Four years ago, I took a stab at guessing your potential. Now only you can determine to what degree you yourself will recognize and fulfill it. God speed. Good luck. Be sure to write.