from kanye west to ryan mcginley, the five best grad speeches ever

As 2015’s last batch of grads toss their caps into the sky, we take a look back at some of the most creative and compelling graduation speeches given over the years. From Patti Smith advocating for dental hygiene to Ali G hitting on Natalie Portman at...

by Emily Manning
29 May 2015, 3:35pm

Ryan McGinley talks phone photos and poodles at Parsons: Last year, "the pied piper of the downtown art world" returned to his alma mater to deliver a knockout commencement speech about the importance of staying, as Morrissey would say, true to you: "If you only like shooting cell phone photos, then do that. If your dad works at a construction site that looks cool, use it. If your mom breeds poodles, then put them in your photographs. Use the camera to take what you know that others don't, what you can access that others can't, and the people or things you connect with, to construct your own world.

Related: See what current Vice Photo Editor Matthew Leifheit thought of the former Vice Photo Editor's speech here.

Patti Smith delivers a dentist's dream speech at Pratt: When Patti Smith returned to Pratt to receive an honorary degree in 2010 (just blocks from where she and Robert Mapplethorpe shared their first apartment on Hall St) the godmother of punk delivered some sage, hygienic advice to graduates: "My greatest urge is to speak to you of dental care. My generation had a rough go dentally. Our dentists were the army dentists who came back from World War II and believed that the dental office was a battleground. You have a better chance at dental health. And I say this because you want at night to be pacing the floor because your fuse is burning inside of you, because you want to do your work, because you want to finish that canvas, because you want to help your fellow man — you don't want to be pacing because you need a damn root canal." Amen, sister.

Ali G is in da Yard: Harvard is like the Madison Square Garden of commencement venues: the university pretty much only books presidents and Oprahs to deliver stirring addresses to today's brightest minds. While 04's Commencement Day honors were reserved for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the more informal Class Day ceremony was headed up by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's fictional British wanksta Ali G, who took to the podium dripping in ice and a special tracksuit with "Professor of Erbology" stitched on the back. Although Baron Cohen is himself a Cambridge man, his satirical character demonstrated a real knowledge of the university, name dropping past Harvard grads including "Lyndon Baines Johnson, or as he is known, JFK," "President George Clinton" and "that really fit honey from Star Wars," (aka Natalie Portman, and for the record, she is the only person of Ali's three shout outs that actually went to Harvard) before signing off "Big up yaself, Princeton!"

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David Foster Wallace finds freedom in check out lines: American author David Foster Wallace delivered what's widely recognized as the greatest commencement speech ever given at Kenyon College in 2005, three years before committing suicide at the age of 46. The speech is the only public talk Foster Wallace ever gave on his views on life, and was later expanded for publication as This is Water. The compelling address explores the true power of an education--developing the freedom to think, choose, feel, and imagine--in a life that's often filled with mundane routines, endless checkout lines at grocery stores, and traffic jams. "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day."

Paging Dr. West: Earlier this month, Kanye went back to the Chi to receive an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while sporting a bottom row of diamond teeth. Although the speech certainly came with a few moments of self congratulations--the Grammy award winning mega star shouted out his most recent achievements including his Time Most Influential Person award and Oxford lecturer status--Yeezy opted to flex his sense of humor ("George Bush...has some very cool self-portraits") and sense of humility rather than the braggadocio he typically reserves for award shows.


Text Emily Manning
Image via YouTube

kanye west
Patti Smith
Ali G
David Foster Wallace
Ryan McGinley