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Top 10 college commencement speeches

Published: Monday, May 19 2014 4:15 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama straightens his tie before he receives an honorary doctorate of laws degree during the Morehouse College 129th Commencement ceremony, Sunday, May 19, 2013, in Atlanta.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

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It’s graduation season, which means it’s time to slap on ridiculous hats and prepare to listen to an older, wiser person tell students what to do with the next step of their lives.

As Ira Glass, producer of the radio show This American Life, said in his commencement speech to Goucher grads in 2012, “Commencement speakers give stock advice, which is then promptly ignored. The central mission of the commencement speech is in itself ridiculous to inspire at a moment that needs no inspiration.”

But some, facing the risk of a “doomed form,” press forward and manage to inspire us. Here are 10 of the most classic graduation speech topics and the speakers who delivered the message better than most.

The reality check speech

Who: Barack Obama, president of the United States

Where: Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia

When: May 2013

Why: Sometimes inspiration is best delivered with a metaphorical slap to the face. Millennials are most criticized for a possessing a strong sense of entitlement, but as President Obama points out, this is not the time for that.

Quote: “It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected, hypercompetitive world, with millions of young people from China and India and Brazil — many of whom started with a whole lot less than all of you did — all of them entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything that you have not earned.”

The tough love speech:

Who: David McCullough Jr., teacher

Where: Wellesley High School, Wellesley, Massachusetts

When: June 2012

Why: Over the past two years this speech has risen in fame. Originally McCullough was criticized by his students’ parents for telling their children that they aren’t special, but now he’s held up as some sort of hero.

Quote: “Contrary to what your … soccer trophy suggests, your glowing … report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mr. Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you … you're nothing special.”

The speech with staying power

Who: David Foster Wallace, author

Where: Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio

When: May 2005

Why: Easily one of the most quotable commencement speeches ever given, Wallace’s speech was later turned into a book and an inspirational video. Its topic? The banality of life. His use of strong metaphor and down-to-earth refusal to waste time trying to inspire make this speech a blunt guide to applying meaning to otherwise meaningless daily tasks.

Quote: "'Learning how to think' really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

The speech with the best advice

Who: Jane Lynch, actress and comedian

Where: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

When: May 2012

Why: Lynch gave bold alternative to life after school, she told the women of Smith College to look at their lives differently than they have for the past 20-plus years.

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