‘Never Be Afraid’: William Faulkner’s Speech to His Daughter’s Graduating Class in 1951

By the start of the 1950s, the euphoria felt by Americans after winning World War II had given way to a pervasive atmosphere of dread.

The Soviets had exploded their first atomic bomb, McCarthyism had reared its head, and America's schoolchildren would soon be told to "Duck and Cover" at the first sound of a civil defense siren.

It was in this climate of palpable fear that William Faulkner was asked by his daughter, Jill, to speak to her graduating class of 1951 at University High School in Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner was at the height of his fame.




Only a few months earlier, in November of 1950, he had traveled to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his speech at Stockholm, Faulkner said that "the basest of all things is to be afraid":

"Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?"

Faulkner expanded on the theme during the speech to his daughter's high school class, delivered May 28, 1951 at Fulton Chapel on the campus of the University of Mississippi, or "Ole Miss."

The occasion was something of a home-town triumph for Faulkner, who had dropped out of high school without a diploma. The excerpt above is from a short documentary released in 1952 called, simply, William Faulkner. Two passages from the speech are omitted in the film. You can read the complete text below. Faulkner begins with a passage from Henri Estienne's 1594 book Les Prémices: "If youth only knew; if age only could."

"Years ago, before any of you were born, a wise Frenchman said, 'If youth knew; if age could.' We all know what he meant: that when you are young, you have the power to do anything, but you don't know what to do. Then, when you have got old and experience and observation have taught you answers, you are tired, frightened; you don't care, you want to be left alone as long as you yourself are safe; you no longer have the capacity or the will to grieve over any wrongs but your own.

"So you young men and women in this room tonight, and in thousands of other rooms like this one about the earth today, have the power to change the world, rid it forever of war and injustice and suffering, provided you know how, know what to do. And so according to the old Frenchman, since you can't know what to do because you are young, then anyone standing here with a head full white hair should be able to tell you.

"But maybe this one is not as old and wise as his white hairs pretend to claim. Because he can't give you a glib answer or pattern either. But he can tell you this, because he believes this. What threatens us today is fear. Not the atom bomb, nor even fear of it, because if the bomb fell on Oxford tonight, all it could do would be to kill us, which is nothing, since in doing that, it will have robbed itself of its only power over us: which is fear of it, the being afraid of it. Our danger is not that. Our danger is the forces in the world today which are trying to use man's fear to rob him of his individuality, his soul, trying to reduce him to an unthinking mass by fear and bribery -- giving him free food which he has not earned, easy and valueless money which he has not worked for; the economies and ideologies or political systems, communist or socialistic or democratic, whatever they wish to call themselves, the tyrants and the politicians, American or European or Asiatic, whatever they call themselves, who would reduce man to one obedient mass for their own aggrandizement and power, or because they themselves are baffled and afraid, afraid of, or incapable of, believing in man's capacity for courage and endurance and sacrifice.

"That is what we must resist, if we are to change the world for man's peace and security. It is not men in the mass who can and will save man. It is man himself, created in the image of God so that he shall have the power to choose right from wrong, and so be able to save himself because he is worth saving -- man, the individual, men and women, who will refuse always to be tricked or frightened or bribed into surrendering, not just the right but the duty too, to choose between justice and injustice, courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed, pity and self -- who will believe always not only in the right of man to be free of injustice and rapacity and deception, but the duty and responsibility of man to see that justice and truth and pity and compassion are done.

"So, never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you, not just you in this room tonight, but in all the thousands of other rooms like this one about the world today and tomorrow and next week, will do this, not as a class or classes, but as individuals, men and women, you will change the earth; in one generation all the Napoleons and Hitlers and Caesars and Mussolinis and Stalins and all the other tyrants who want power and aggrandizement, and the simple politicians and time-servers who themselves are merely baffled or ignorant of afraid, who have used, or are using, or hope to use, man's fear and greed for man's enslavement, will have vanished from the face of it."

When he was finished, Faulkner gave his copy of the speech to the editor of the local newspaper. At a party afterward he reportedly said, "You know, I never knew how nice a graduation could be. This is the first one I've ever been to."

To watch the full film from which the speech is taken, see our earlier post: "Rare 1952 Film: William Faulkner on His Native Soil in Oxford, Mississippi."

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Todd Rundgren’s Advice to Young Artists: Be Free and Fearless, Make Art That Expresses Your True Self, and Never Mind the Critics

The Internet has redeemed graduation season for those of us whose commencement speakers failed to inspire.

One of the chief digital pleasures of the season is truffling up words of wisdom that seem ever so much wiser than the ones that were poured past the mortarboard into our own tender ears.

Our most-recently found pearls come from the mouth of one of our favorite dark horses, musician, producer, and multimedia pioneer Todd Rundgren, one of Berklee College of Music’s 2017 commencement speakers.




Rundgren claims he never would have passed the prestigious institution’s audition. He barely managed to graduate from high school. But he struck a blow for lifelong learners whose pursuit of knowledge takes place outside the formal setting by earning honorary degrees from both Berklee, and DePauw University, where the newly anointed Doctor of Performing Arts can be seen below, studying his honoris causa as the school band serenades him with a student-arranged version of his song, All the Children Sing.

Rundgren’s outsider status played well with Berklee’s Class of 2017, as he immediately ditched his ceremonial headdress and conferred some cool on the sunglasses dictated by his failing vision.

But it wasn’t all opening snark, as he praised the students’ previous night’s musical performance, telling them that they were a credit to their school, their families and themselves.

His was a different path.

Rundgren, an experienced public speaker, claims he was stumped as to how one would go about crafting commencement speeches. Rejecting an avalanche of advice, whose urgency suggested his speech could only result in “universal jubilation or mass suicide if (he) didn’t get it right,” he chose instead to spend his first 10 minutes at the podium recounting his personal history.

It’s interesting stuff for any student of rock n roll, with added cool points owing to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s failure to acknowledge this musical innovator.

Whether or not the Class of 17 were familiar with their speaker prior to that day, it’s probable most of them were able to do the math and realize that the self-educated Rundgren would have been their age in 1970, when his debut album, Runt, was released, and only a couple of years older when his third album, 1972’s two disc, Ritalin-fueled Something/Anything shot him to fame.

After which, this proud iconoclast promptly thumbed his nose at commercial success, detouring into the sonic experiments of A Wizard, a True Star, whose disastrous critical reception belies the masterpiece reputation it now enjoys.

Rolling Stone called it a case of an artist “run amok.”

Patti Smith, whose absolutely mandatory Creem review reads like beat poetry, was a rare admirer.

Did a shiver of fear run through the parents in the audience, as Rundgren regaled their children with tales of how this deliberate trip into the unknown cost him half his fanbase?

How much is Berklee's tuition these days, anyway?

Autobiographical urges from the commencement podium run the risk of coming off as inappropriate indulgence, but Rundgren’s personal story is supporting evidence of his very worthy message to his younger fellow artists :

  • Don’t self-edit in an attempt to fit someone else’s image of who you should be as an artist. See yourself.
  • Use your art as a tool for vigorous self-exploration.
  • Commit to remaining free and fearless, in the service of your defining moment, whose arrival time is rarely published in advance.
  • Don’t view graduation as the end of your education. Think of it as the beginning. Learn about the things you love.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this June for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Graduation Highlight: Billionaire Robert F. Smith Announces That He’ll Pay Off the Student Loans of Morehouse’s Class of 2019

Robert F. Smith, the billionaire CEO of Vista Equity Partners, received an honorary degree from Morehouse College on Sunday. And he gave something back--a grant to retire the student loans of Morehouse's 2019 graduating class. Like that an estimated $40 million in debt was gone.

Meanwhile, in other news, a titan of industry spent $90 million this week on a Jeff Koons rabbit statue. And now it will likely serve as an ornament piece in a walled-off mansion somewhere. Imagine how that money could have been put to more productive use...

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Neil Gaiman Reads His Manifesto on Making Art: Features the 10 Things He Wish He Knew As a Young Artist

I think you're absolutely allowed several minutes, possibly even half a day to feel very, very sorry for yourself indeed. And then just start making art. - Neil Gaiman

It’s a bit early in the year for commencement speeches, but fortunately for lifelong learners who rely on a steady drip of inspiration and encouragement, author Neil Gaiman excels at putting old wine in new bottles.

He repurposed his keynote address to Philadelphia's University of the Arts’ Class of 2012 for Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World, a slim volume with hand lettering and illustrations by Chris Riddell.




The above video captures the frequent collaborators appearing together last fall at the East London cultural center Evolutionary Arts Hackney in a fundraiser for English PEN, the founding branch of the worldwide literary defense association. While Gaiman reads aloud in his affable, ever-engaging style, Riddell uses a brush pen to bang out 4 3/4 line drawings, riffing on Gaiman’s metaphors.

While the art-making “rules” Gaiman enumerates herein have been extrapolated and widely disseminated (including, never fear, below), it’s worth having a look at why this event called for a live illustrator.

Leaving aside the fact that each ticket purchaser got a copy of Art Matters, autographed by both men, and a large signed print was auctioned off on behalf of English PEN, Gaiman holds illustrations in high regard.

His work includes picture books, graphic novels, and lightly illustrated novels for teens and young adults, and as a mature reader, he, too, delights in visuals, singling out Frank C. Papé's drawings for the decidedly “adult” 1920s fantasy novels of James Branch Cabell. (1929’s Something about Eve featured a buxom female character angrily frying up her husband's manhood for dinner and an erotic entryway that would have thrilled Dr. Seuss.)

In an interview with Waterstones booksellers upon the publication of Neverwhere another collaboration with Riddell, Gaiman mused:

…a good illustrator, for me, is like going to see a play. You are going to get something brought to life for you by a specific cast in a specific place. That way of illustrating will never happen again. You know, somebody else could illustrate it—there are hundreds of different Alice in Wonderlands.

Which we could certainly take to mean that if Riddell’s style doesn’t grab you the way it grabs Gaiman (and the juries for several prestigious awards) perhaps you should tear your eyes away from the screen and illustrate what you hear in the speech.

Do you need to know how to draw as well as he does? The rules, below, suggest not. We’d love to take a peek inside your sketchbook after.

  1. Embrace the fact that you're young. Accept that you don't know what you're doing. And don't listen to anyone who says there are rules and limits.

  2. If you know your calling, go there. Stay on track. Keep moving towards it, even if the process takes time and requires sacrifice.

  3. Learn to accept failure. Know that things will go wrong. Then, when things go right, you'll probably feel like a fraud. It's normal.

  4. Make mistakes, glorious and fantastic ones. It means that you're out there doing and trying things.

  5. When life gets hard, as it inevitably will, make good art. Just make good art.

  6. Make your own art, meaning the art that reflects your individuality and personal vision.

  7. You get freelance work if your work is good, if you're easy to get along with, and if you're on deadline. Actually you don't need all three. Just two.

  8. Enjoy the ride. Don’t fret it all away. (That one comes compliments of Stephen King.)

  9. Be wise and accomplish things in your career. If you have problems getting started, pretend you're someone who is wise, who can get things done. It will help you along.

  10. Leave the world more interesting than it was before.

Read a complete transcript of the speech here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City tonight as host of Theater of the Apes’ monthly  book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Tim Minchin Presents “9 Rules to Live By” in a Funny and Wise Commencement Speech (2013)

Tim Minchin isn’t much of a role model in the hair brushing department, but in every other way the prolific comedian/actor/writer/musician/director inspires.

He’s unabashedly enthusiastic about science, a lifelong learner who’s a strong believer in the power of exercise, travel, and thank you notes….

He uses his stardom and talent for penning controversial lyrics to raise awareness and money for such causes as the UK’s National Autistic Society and a local charity formed to send adults who, as children, were sexually abused by Catholic clergy, to Rome.




His creative output is prodigious.

And he’s one helluva commencement speaker.

In 2013, his alma mater, the University of Western Australia, awarded him an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters and invited him to address the graduating class.

The speaker insisted up front that an “inflated sense of self importance” born of addressing large crowds was the only thing that positioned him to give such an address, then went on to share a funny 9-point guide to life that stressed the importance of gratitude, education, intellectual rigor, and kindness toward others.

If you haven’t the time to watch the entire 12-minute speech, above, be sure to circle back later. His advice is hilarious, heartwarming, and memorable.

In extrapolating the essence of each of his nine “life lessons” below, we discovered many bonus lessons contained therein (one of which we include below.)

Tim Minchin’s 9 Rules To Live By

  1. You don’t have to have a dream. Be micro-ambitious and see what happens as you pursue short-term goals…
  2. Rather than chasing happiness for yourself, keep busy and aim to make someone else happy.
  3. Remember that we are lucky to be here, and that most of us - especially those of us with a college education, or those actively seeking to educate themselves to a similar degree—will achieve a level of wealth that “most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of.”
  4. Exercise. Among other things, it helps combat depression. 
  5. Identify your biases, prejudices, and privileges and do not exempt your own beliefs and opinions from intellectual rigor.
  6. Be a teacher!  Swell the ranks of this noble profession.
  7. Define yourself by what you love, rather than what you despise, and lavish praise on the people and things that move you.
  8. Respect those with less power than yourself, and be wary of those who do not. 
  9. Don’t be in a rush to succeed. It might come at a cost. 

BONUS.  Uphold the notion that art and science are not an either/or choice, but rather compliment each other. “If you need proof—Twain, Douglas Adams, Vonnegut, McEwan, Sagan and Shakespeare, Dickens for a start. …The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. “

Read the full transcript of Minchin’s commencement speech here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Filmmaker Ken Burns Urges Stanford Graduates to Defeat Trump & the Retrograde Forces Threatening the U.S.

This time of year, we see graduation speeches popping up all over the web. The commencement address as a genre focuses on the opportunities, challenges, and responsibilities graduates will face post-college, and often espouses timeless life lessons and philosophies. But this year, as you may have seen, esteemed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns took the opportunity of his graduation speech, presented to the 2016 class at Stanford University, to address the timeliest of issues: the upcoming presidential election and the threat of "an incipient proto-fascism." The graduation just happened to fall on the same day as the deadliest mass-shooting in recent American history.

Voters are angry at the system, we're told again and again, and frankly the overwhelming majority of us have every reason to be. But anger can be intoxicating, and the segment of the electorate that carried Donald Trump to power seems drunk with rage and hostility. The promise of Trumpism puts me in mind of historian and critic Richard Slotkin’s classic study of U.S. mythology, Regeneration Through Violence, which describes the nation's compulsion to purge the country of threatening others in order to restore some myth of lost innocence. "I will give you everything, I'm the only one," the candidate vows, while scapegoating group after group for the country's problems.

In his Stanford commencement speech on Sunday, Burns decried “the dictatorial tendencies of the candidate with zero experience in the much maligned but subtle art of governance; who is against lots of things, but doesn’t seem to be for anything, offering only bombastic and contradictory promises and terrifying Orwellian statements." The Republican candidate for president is "a person,” Burns said in his impassioned speech, “who easily lies, creating an environment where truth doesn’t seem to matter.”

As a student of history, I recognize this type. He emerges everywhere and in all eras. We see nurtured in his campaign an incipient proto-fascism, a nativist anti-immigrant Know Nothing-ism, a disrespect for the judiciary, the prospect of women losing authority over their own bodies, African-Americans again asked to go to the back of the line, voter suppression gleefully promoted, jingoistic saber-rattling, a total lack of historical awareness, a political paranoia that, predictably, points fingers, always making the other wrong. These are all virulent strains that have at times infected us in the past. But they now loom in front of us again — all happening at once. We know from our history books that these are the diseases of ancient and now fallen empires. The sense of commonwealth, of shared sacrifice, of trust, so much a part of American life, is eroding fast, spurred along and amplified by an amoral internet that permits a lie to circle the globe three times before the truth can get started.

We no longer have the luxury of neutrality or “balance,” or even of bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He is not. Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago. He is an insult to our history. Do not be deceived by his momentary “good behavior.” It is only a spoiled, misbehaving child hoping somehow to still have dessert.

And do not think that the tragedy in Orlando underscores his points. It does not. We must “disenthrall ourselves,” as Abraham Lincoln said, from the culture of violence and guns. And then “we shall save our country.”

The words of Lincoln that Burns quotes come from the president’s annual remarks to congress in 1862, in which Lincoln made the case for the Emancipation Proclamation, one month before signing it. (A document, ironically, that Slotkin says "radically expanded the existing powers of the presidency" in its pursuit of a just cause.) In his address, Lincoln makes a forceful moral argument, all the more eloquent for its characteristic brevity.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us.

Likewise, Burns—addressing future leaders at an elite institution—makes his case for heeding the lessons of history, considering posterity, and rejecting Trump, independent of partisan interests: “This is not a liberal or conservative issue, a red state-blue state divide. This is an American issue.” He also implores "those 'Vichy Republicans' who have endorsed him to please, please reconsider." The horrific mass murder in Orlando has further inflamed what Burns calls “the troubling, unfiltered Tourette’s of [Trump’s] tribalism”---with renewed calls for bans on all Muslims, more inflammatory insinuations that the president colludes with terrorists, and bizarre allegations that a Clinton aide is a Saudi agent.

Trump did not invent this rhetoric of bigotry, conspiracy, and paranoia, but he has manipulated and exploited it more effectively than anyone else, to potentially disastrous effect. "The next few months of your 'commencement,'" Burns says, "that is to say, your future, will be critical to the survival of our republic." He urges the graduating Stanford class to take action: “before you do anything with your well-earned degree, you must do everything you can to defeat the retrograde forces that have invaded our democratic process.” Those processes may already be deeply compromised by moneyed interests, but destroying the edifice on which they're built, Burns suggests, will hardly restore any supposedly lost "greatness." Watch Burns' full commencement speech above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Harvard Dean Lists the 5 Essential Questions to Ask In Life … Which Will Bring You Happiness & Success

And now for a different kind of graduation speech.

Most commencement speeches provide answers of sorts--pieces of wisdom you can carry with you, life strategies you can use down the road. Above James Ryan, Dean of Harvard's School of Education, offers something else--not answers, but questions, the five essential questions to ask as you move through life. He elaborates on each above:

1.) Wait, what?

2.) I wonder, why/if?

3.) Couldn't we at least?

4.) How can I help?

5.) What really matters?

Bonus question: And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?

You can watch Ryan's complete commencement speech here.

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