"The season of convocation was upon the land; excitement and optimism wafted like fragrance in the Acadanian air. For students and faculty alike, it was a time of hope, of great expectations. But for the oldest and wisest professor, loved and admired by all, it brought only unhappiness."
With that, author Rohinton Mistry launched into an unusual address to a crowd of graduating Ryerson University students last Friday. In lieu of the typical speech, he told a tale in the tradition of A Christmas Carol: a spirit visits a fretting professor, whisking him into the night sky to show him visions of society present and future in the fictional land of Acadan.
Except Acadan didn't look so made-up (note the anagram for Canada). What the professor sees – a Gravy Train, an increasingly uncaring health-care system, and controversial government polices from fighter jets to the census – are the results of citizen apathy, Mr. Mistry suggests. And young grads must combat apathy at all costs.
Mr. Mistry grabbed the hall's attention. While many of the luminaries accepting doctorates at spring convocations stuck to tried and true formulae – go forth, dream big, give back, with a few secrets to happiness and productivity – Mr. Mistry's was one of several graduate addresses to tap an undercurrent of unease and uncertainty that runs strong in the Class of 2012.
Many graduation send-offs are forgettable, and some of the best are also forgotten. But record numbers of graduates are donning cap and gown after being bombarded with images of a world in flux – and warnings of their own impending unemployment. In that climate, what lingers are messages encouraging students to embrace the unexpected, and ones they can "map onto their own reality," University of Alberta provost Carl Amrhein said.
"The message does change. When Alberta was really booming, students didn't have to worry about an intensely competitive job market. Now, even in Alberta where things are relatively better, students are worried about finding jobs. So the person giving the convocation address has to ... focus on flexibility, and the ability to adjust, the characteristics of a university graduate along those lines," Dr. Amrhein said. "In another time, they may want the soaring references to the philosophers of the past."
One graduate who was enthralled by Mr. Mistry's speech was Lidia Bit-Yunan, 23, who thought a sobering but witty message about the need to engage in the way Canadian society is changing was perfectly apt. "I think you definitely have to cater it to the time, because everything is catered to us nowadays," she said.
David McCullough, however, wants this year's class to stop expecting a world tailored to them. The Massachusetts teacher grabbed international headlines for a recent address in which he told high school graduates: "You are not special. You are not exceptional ... Because everyone is."
"Good for that guy. It's a point of view," said David Peterson, chancellor of the University of Toronto, who has heard his share of "bromides and platitudes" over the past six years.
"I don't think he was hard on kids, I think he gave them different things to think about."
A few days after Mr. Mistry's speech, author Margaret Atwood took to the same Ryerson stage with her own wisdom for coping with turbulent times – and inserted her own political jab.
"We don't know how things are going to turn out on our planet, in the global financial markets, and in our increasingly unfamiliar country, where the furtive hands of federal gnomes are busily at work dismantling every public benefit we once thought was built so soundly," she said. "In this age of instability, what sort of future can a person of your age expect? And what words of cheer can a person of my age offer you? Let's just say you'll need ingenuity and perseverance and thoughtfulness – it won't be easy, but let's hope that like a lot of things that aren't easy, it will be fun."
The open assaults from Ms. Atwood and Mr. Mistry on governments of the day raise the question of how much politics is too much at an occasion designed to celebrate a rite of passage. Former House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken steered clear of mentioning the protests that have rocked Quebec for months when addressing McGill University graduates last week. "Those people were graduating. I wouldn't have thought they were much involved in the protest stuff," he said.
Yet politically charged commencement speeches are nothing new. Winston Churchill uttered his famous "Never give in," at England's Harrow School in 1941. George C. Marshall unveiled the Marshall Plan at Harvard University six years later. And Canada's Governor-General, David Johnston, remembers watching U Thant, the Burmese secretary-general of the United Nations, speak of rebuilding peace in the world at his own Harvard commencement in 1963, mere months removed from the Cuban missile crisis.
"[It] addressed the things that concerned us as graduates the most. We were really worried four or five months earlier that we were going to go into World War Three," Mr. Johnston said.
A dose of cold reality may be a popular device today, but convocation addresses are still intended to inspire, leading some speakers to segue to the excitement of not knowing what's in store.
Prem Watsa, the Canadian investment guru who has been chancellor of the University of Waterloo since 2009, likes to tell graduates about the time when, as a 21-year-old engineering student on a rail car between Chennai and Hyderabad, India, he met a stranger who introduced him to Napoleon Hill's book Think and Grow Rich – a text that has guided him ever since.
"It wasn't planned. It came out of the blue. And for me, it had a very significant impact on my life," he said.
Mr. Watsa's favourite commencement address is a popular choice – the one the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005. Mr. Jobs famously cited dropping out of college and getting fired from Apple as two of the best moments of his life, urging students to pursue what they love relentlessly, and signing off with, "Stay hungry. Stay foolish." Mr. Watsa likes the way Mr. Jobs found opportunity in his setbacks.
Some commentators have called the speech unhelpful and irresponsible given that most grads – even from Stanford – won't ever be Steve Jobs. "The problem is, the people who give these sorts of speeches are the outliers," Megan McArdle wrote in The Atlantic.
But Mr. Jobs's message would fit well among this year's procession of honoured speakers – as was evident from the number of people who returned to it for inspiration after his death last fall. Yes, the world may seem unfair and unstable right now, some said. And yes, it will likely feel that way again later in life. But you're all sitting here because can think, adapt and learn, and you must energetically pour those skills into moulding a future for all of us.
"I'd say it's perfectly acceptable, and valuable, to challenge the students, even if it makes them a little bit uncomfortable," Dr. Amrhein said. "A lot of young people don't necessarily want to be told that they need to step up to the plate or society will stumble – that's a pretty heavy burden to receive as you finish your last exam – but I think the [honorary doctorate recipients] have a pretty wide latitude."
Excerpts from reality-focused speeches
Mordecai Richler, McGill University, 2000: "...The truth is when I was your age I was in no need of advice. I knew everything. My world was filled with certitudes. But when you get to be my age, you realize you know nothing. Doubts are the unhappy rule."
Winston Churchill, Harrow School, 1941: "You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination."
David McCullough, Wellesley High School, 2012: "You've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped....Capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counselled you, encouraged you, consoled you, and encouraged you again. . . . But do not get the idea you're anything special. Because you're not.''
Steve Jobs, Harvard University, 2005: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Governor-General David Johnston as "Dr." Mr. Johnston has not earned a doctorate degree.