The purpose of a commencement speech is to congratulate and to motivate. They are the culmination of years of scholarly work, but commence a new era for students, an era of uncertainty and maybe fear. A commencement speech may be a call to action as well.
In a speech given in 2003 to University of Utah grads, Terry Tempest Williams addresses these fears by assuring students in their abilities, “What I witnessed was a class of highly intelligent, thoughtful individuals who have learned how to think critically and creatively. I saw how an educated mind is an empathetic mind”. She urges her audience to be receptive to all information, viewpoints, and conversations, but to be equally critical of them. For this is what makes American democracy work and allows it to improve.
In Custer Died for Your Sins, Vine Deloria Jr writes that culture is inherently tied to a land base. TTW’s desire to preserve our landscape extends past ecological conservation and into cultural preservation. The landscapes of America has shaped our culture(s) and thus us, the people, into what we are and what we identify with. To preserve our culture is also to preserve our values and our democracy. By developing natural landscapes into residential or agricultural areas, we rob future generations of experiencing an invaluable aspect of our culture.
TTW continues by criticizing the diminishing importance of discussion happening in politics and by extension among citizens. Delivered in the aftermath of 9/11 and the impending war in Iraq, the speech aims to undermine emerging nationalist rhetoric. During the early 21st century ‘patriot’ was repurposed to align one with the statement “you’re either with us, or against us”. This outlook only polarized solutions, conversations, and the people involved into extremes.