Aaron Sorkin’s Commencement Speech at Syracuse University

Aaron Sorkin gave the commencement speech to the 2012 graduates of Syracuse University. It is excellent:

I’d like to say to the parents that I realized something while I was writing this speech: the last teacher your kids will have in college will be me.  And that thought scared the hell out of me. Frankly, you should feel exactly the same way.  But I am the father of an 11-year-old daughter, so I do know how proud you are today, how proud your daughters and your sons make you every day, and that they did just learn how to walk last week, that you’ll never not be there for them, that you love them more than they’ll ever know and that it doesn’t matter how many degrees get put in their hand, they will always be dumber than you are.

 And make no mistake about it, you are dumb.  You’re a group of incredibly well-educated dumb people.  I was there.  We all were there.  You’re barely functional.  There are some screw-ups headed your way.  I wish I could tell you that there was a trick to avoiding the screw-ups, but the screw-ups, they’re a-coming for ya.  It’s a combination of life being unpredictable, and you being super dumb.

An example of how a failure in college served as motivation for Sorkin:

As a freshman drama student—and this story is now becoming famous—I had a play analysis class—it was part of my requirement…The play analysis class met for 90 minutes twice a week.  We read two plays a week and we took a 20-question true or false quiz at the beginning of the session that tested little more than whether or not we’d read the play.  The problem was that the class was at 8:30 in the morning, it met all the way down on East Genesee, I lived all the way up at Brewster/Boland, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but from time to time the city of Syracuse experiences inclement weather.  All this going to class and reading and walking through snow, wind chill that’s apparently powered by jet engines, was having a negative effect on my social life in general and my sleeping in particular.  At one point, being quizzed on “Death of a Salesman,” a play I had not read, I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies.  And I failed the class.  I had to repeat it my sophomore year; it was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing.    And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer.  I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D.  I’m joking: it was pass/fail.

And I think this is the best part of the speech:

Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance—and since you’re walking into the middle of a presidential election, it’s worth mentioning that you’re too good to think people who disagree with you are your enemy.

 

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