Commencement Speeches, Lectures and Sermons Are Way Overdone

Humans love to pontificate. I’ve been guilty of it myself. This urge to share our views in a formal, dramatic fashion goes way back.

I was recently at the site of the Forum in ancient Rome. It was not far from the Colosseum and emperor’s palace. It was where philosophers and other orators gave long speeches to anyone who cared to listen. Many people couldn’t read then, and fewer still could get their hands on books. So speeches were a primary means of communicating ideas. Much has changed.

This time of year “successful” people are called upon to share their wisdom with college graduates. The news media reports on those speeches widely. Perhaps it’s a sign of my age, but my main reaction to all of this is, “enough already.”

I’m weary of speeches. And sermons. And, for that matter, sitting in one place for any length of time to listen to anyone.

Perhaps I’ve merely gotten more impatient with age. But I don’t think that’s it. I think I’ve simply come to realize that the odds of anything being said that will impact or transform my life in any meaningful way are very, very low.

With age has come the realization that we learn by doing, not by listening. That’s not to say that listening is worthless. It isn’t. But it is highly overrated as a means of imparting knowledge and wisdom.

I suppose I knew this in school. Teachers and professors would speak for long periods of time. They call them lectures. In general, they were pretty worthless. Reading the material was a much more efficient means of communication. Indeed, countless studies have shown the futility of lecturing. Yet we continue to engage in the practice with abandon. I always wondered why really smart people who teach for a living refuse to learn.

My college classes are highly interactive, modeled more after the Socratic method prevalent in law schools. The student seem to appreciate it. And, hopefully, they learn more. In any case, they don’t seem to be bored and neither am I. It’s doubtful a bored person can learn. Yet we bore people in school on a regular basis. Again, I’m left to wonder why smart people can’t learn and adapt.

Now, some people will say that all of these commencement speeches, lectures and sermons are inspirational. Many are. But I’ve observed that the inspiration tends to dissipate before the audience or class gets out the door. That’s the way it is with inspirational moments. They’re moments.

Inspiration imparted by living is a different matter. That’s why I think heroes are more important than inspirational moments. Heroes inspire by living, not merely talking. Words without action are pretty hollow. Most of us know this deep down in. Most politicians don’t. Or they think we don’t.

If I had life to live over again, I’d spend less time sitting and listening. I’d look for a college that had professors who understood how people learn and adapted their ways accordingly. I’d skip many of the other occasions that were built around speeches (graduation ceremonies and the like). And I’d listen to far fewer sermons.

Would I be any worse for it? I doubt it.

Oh, and I’d do something else: I’d decline to give speeches and lectures unless I really had something timely and important to say. And I’d keep them very short, relevant and interesting. I’d strive much harder not to bore people. Boring others is like taking part of their lives and giving little or nothing in return. We should treat it as the offense it is.

So enough already with all the commencement speeches and media reports about those speeches.

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