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Who’s a Better Graduation Speaker, Gandhi or Charlie Day?

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The answer, of course, is the TV actor, because he spoke in his own words, and not inaccurate Inspirational Quotes.

by Liam Mathews

It's graduation season. My alma mater's commencement ceremony is today, so congratulations to the Eugene Lang College Class of 2014. May you claim your place in Lang's proud legacy of Internet shit-talkers. 

Graduation is one of the most change-proof traditions in America. These are things that are guaranteed: the "Pomp & Circumstance" march, some clown thinking he's the bee's knees by customizing his gown, and interminable speechifying. Within that speechifying, there's a new tradition creeping in: by my rough (meaning made up for the sake of humor) estimate, 93 percent of commencement speeches will use the quote, "be the change you wish to see in the world," attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. 

"Be the change you wish to see in the world." Aight, then. 

I attended a graduation ceremony on Sunday, and two separate speeches, from the student council president and the university president, used this quote. It bummed me out for a few reasons. 

First of all, Gandhi never even said this. Author Brian Morton, writing in the Times, found the closest verifiable remark from Gandhi: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do." Close, but very different. One is about actively remaking oneself and the world, while the other is about kinda not being such a selfish jerk. But the gap in meaning isn't the point, really. The point is that folks are parroting a fabricated quote. It's a simplified, bumper sticker version of wisdom. And that bumper sticker-fication is the problem of the genre of "Inspirational Quotes."

Inspirational Quotes of the memeable variety are thoughtless. They are Googled shortcuts to profundity. Gandhi never wrote, "be the change you wish to see in the world," nor did he say it in an interview. People don't communicate in pithy little sound bites. So to put an Inspirational Quote in a speech is dishonest. It's a cheat. It's the speaker throwing their hands up and admitting they have nothing to say. An Inspirational Quote indicates a lack of reflection or creativity in a speech. A speaker who needs them doesn't have the insight to truly inspire. 

A commencement speech should be a showcase for creativity. It's a place for someone to share what they've learned. It can even be a place to give an introduction to a philosophy that can change how people who hear it think, like David Foster Wallace's 2005 speech at Kenyon College, now known as This Is Water. Of course, no one expects a student body president to be as good a writer as David Foster Wallace, but I would rather hear that student body president in his own words than hear him recite clichéed platitudes that were never actually said.

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia's Charlie Day spoke at Merrimack College on Sunday, and it was a sterling example of what a graduation speech can be: funny, honest, and genuinely inspirational. His story of believing in himself in the face of uncertainty and failure is relatable, and borne out through evidence. He was offered a job on a show called Life On A Stick at the same time he and his friends were creating It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Life On A Stick lasted five broadcast episodes, and It's Always Sunny is now one of the longest-running comedies of all time. His honest advice gives me confidence to continue to chase my dreams. 

Who knows when the Class of 2014 will begin giving honorary doctorate speeches of their own, or what Inspirational Quotes we'll have implanted in our cyborg flash drive brains in 30 years. But hopefully they'll be accurate, at least. 

Image via Youtube.