This month features a bevy of graduation ceremonies. Family members, friends, peers, teachers and others will be on hand to observe commencement ceremonies of all stripes.
One staple feature of these is the commencement address. While these speeches have a reputation for being drawn-out, boring speeches that no one pays attention to or takes seriously, there are some throughout history that still resonate today. Allow me to point out two.
// Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University
One such great speech was given at Harvard University in 1978 by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, whose classic book The Gulag Archipelago exposed the horrors of the Soviet Union and Communism.
A victim, survivor and critic of Soviet-style Communism, everyone at the speech expected to hear Solzhenitsyn criticize Communism and offer nothing but praise for the West and for Capitalism. Instead Solzhenitsyn offered a friendly, but constructive, criticism of the West and its systems of power and failings.
He said, “A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations.”
He added, “When the modern Western states were created, the principle was proclaimed that governments are meant to serve man, and man lives to be free and to pursue happiness. See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence. Now, at last, during past decades, technical and social progress has permitted the realization of such aspirations: the welfare state.”
He also said, “I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law, and never reaches any higher, is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses.”
You can read the entire address here.
// Churchill at Harrow: Never give up!
What has to be the best commencement address ever delivered, though, comes from Sir Winston Churchill. After leading the British to victory, from their darkest hours to their finest hour in World War II, the great Churchill spoke years later at Harrow, his old school.
This champion of freedom, now in his elder years, looked out over those graduates and said simply, “Never give up, never, never, never.”
As the late historian Dr. J. Rufus Fears said, you will never hear a better commencement address or a more practical piece of life advice. At every point in life, we are tempted to quit. From grand endeavors like marriage or careers, to everyday temptations to sin, giving in or giving up is a universal problem.
Churchill’s advice—“Never give up”—should be heard and heeded by each one of us, not just high school or college graduates.
I, for one, am thankful for commencement addresses. Even though most of them probably will be long, boring and unimportant, every now and then, one comes along that speaks across the ages, from the likes of a Solzhenitsyn or Churchill.
P.S. Congratulations to the Class of 2018. May the LORD be with you in all your endeavors, as you seek Him, and may you never give up!