Jon Stewart’s William & Mary Commencement Address: The Entire World is an Elective

In 1984, Jon Stew­art grad­u­at­ed from The Col­lege of William & Mary. In 1999, he began host­ing Com­e­dy Cen­tral’s news pro­gram The Dai­ly Show. In 2004, he returned to his alma mater, immea­sur­ably more influ­en­tial than he’d left it, to give its com­mence­ment address. Despite a dat­ed crack or two — this was the hey­day of George W. Bush, the Pres­i­dent who arguably gave Stew­art’s Dai­ly Show per­sona both its foil and rai­son d’être — the speech’s core remains sound. You, Stew­art tells the massed grad­u­ates, have the pow­er to become the next “great­est gen­er­a­tion,” though the chance appears espe­cial­ly clear and present because of how the last gen­er­a­tion “broke” the world. “It just kind of  got away from us,” he half-jokes, his grin com­pressed by seri­ous­ness. That admis­sion fol­lows a stream of self-dep­re­ca­tion hit­ting every­thing from his ten­den­cy toward pro­fan­i­ty to his unusu­al­ly large head as an under­grad­u­ate to how his pres­ence onstage deval­ues William & Mary’s very rep­u­ta­tion.

Whether or not you find the world bro­ken, or whether or not you believe that a gen­er­a­tion could break or fix it, Stew­art still packs a num­ber of worth­while obser­va­tions about the place into fif­teen min­utes. He per­haps deliv­ers his most valu­able words to these excit­ed, anx­ious school-leavers when he con­trasts the world to the aca­d­e­m­ic envi­ron­ment they’ve just left: “There is no core cur­ricu­lum. The entire place is an elec­tive.” Stew­art com­mu­ni­cates, as many com­mence­ment speak­ers try to but few do so clear­ly, that you can’t plan your way direct­ly to suc­cess in life, what­ev­er “suc­cess” might mean to you. He cer­tain­ly did­n’t. “If you had been to William and Mary while I was here and found out that I would be the com­mence­ment speak­er 20 years lat­er, you would be some­what sur­prised,” he admits. “And prob­a­bly some­what angry.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

Conan O’Brien Kills It at Dart­mouth Grad­u­a­tion

Jon Stew­art: Teach­ers Have it Too Good (Wink)

‘This Is Water’: Com­plete Audio of David Fos­ter Wallace’s Keny­on Grad­u­a­tion Speech (2005)

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.


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