Aug 20, 2010

Lamenting convocation speeches

Why don't we have good speakers at convocation ceremonies in India? Each year, a commencement speech or two from a US university will do the email rounds. Usually by a leading figure, the speech will be amusing, inspiring, interesting, and even personal. It's quite a good way to sign off a graduating year's stint in that academic institution. And some may finally learn something useful there!

In contrast, most convocation ceremonies at Indian institutions are boring affairs, with the chief guest's speech crowning the insipid cake with the dullest cherry of the day. It doesn't help that chief guests are often politicians, called to the ceremony because they are ultimately influential patrons of the educational system, or because the powers-that-be get a chance to rub noses with the ruling elites. On occasion, figures from business are invited, which is usually an improvement on the politicos. But oratory may not really be their strong suit. Forget diction or command, even the content is mundane and in danger of adding decades to Kumbhakarna's slumber.

The three convocation speeches that coincided with my stint at IIT Bombay were largely uninspiring. The first was the then HRD Minister, Arjun Singh (2005), incidentally in the middle of his reservations controversy. Montek Singh Ahluwahlia (2006) followed - decent, but I can't think of anything memorable that he said. Invited to preside over the convocation ceremony of 2007 was industrialist L.N.Mittal. On paper, it seemed a decent choice - he was riding several waves of fame. But the hour-long speech was, sadly, one of the most boring that it has been my fate to sit through. If it wasn't the small matter of picking up a degree certificate, I might have succumbed to that most primal of social urges: of escaping from a boring colloquium, by hook or crook. What made it worse was that he repeatedly referred to the hallowed institution as "double-I-T" or even on occasion "double-I-I-T". Depending on which rules of association one applied to the latter, we wondered if we were taking leave from "I2IT" or even "I4T". (Incidentally, earlier that year, his namesake Sunil Bharti Mittal had delivered a guest lecture in the nearby School of Management, which was quite impressive in content and delivery.)

I note that this year's IIT Bombay convocation featured more science-oriented individuals: Dr. Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Prof. Roddam Narasimha as chief guests. (I was even more intrigued to find out that the convocation had been split into two sessions over two days - apparently, too many people graduating! The Convocation Hall is huge, so the space overflow must have been considerable.) I don't know how their speeches went, and it's not a good idea to automatically assume people like these will be any more inspirational than their predecessors.

It's a pity that most public function speeches in India are so poorly delivered, and that everyone involved has come to expect nothing more. The speakers don't do us listeners the honour of diligent practice, and the listeners in turn, do the listeners no favours of attention.

Some of the more famous commencement speeches alluded to in the opening of this post:

* Steve Jobs at Stanford, 2005: video, transcript - probably the most famous of the lot
* J. K. Rowling at Harvard, 2008: video, transcript - titled "the fringe benefits of failure"
* Jon Stewart at The College of William and Mary, 2004: transcript - quite hilarious
* Atul Gawande at Stanford School of Medicine, 2010: transcript - interesting, cautionary, and thought-provoking thoughts for a graduating class of doctors

The inevitable top ten list is here.


Saket said...

I don't have a first-hand experience on Indian convocation speeches but I share your enthusiasm for American commencement speeches. I attended at couple at UW in 2003, one by Jerry Zucker (director of the movie "Ghost") which was great. The chief guest at my own commencement was rather boring though in 2004.

Patrix said...

Commenting on this apart from lack of graduation ceremonies for majority of students in India got me into a shouting match with my dad...on my graduation day.

D said...

I enjoyed this immensely as well as the links to it. So much so, that i wrote a HT blog to you :)

Soppy as I may sound, I actually liked JK Rowling's speech as I share her parents' fear of poverty

J Ramanand said...

Saket: I also like the fact that they consider non-biz/science/politician folks as people worth listening to.

Patrix: ha ha - I skipped my undergrad graduation ceremony because it had absolutely nothing to offer for my time

D: thanks! JKR's speech is quite thought-provoking. Very few people can talk about family like she did in the talk.

Abhi T said...

I remember my convocation at IITM. The speaker was Azim Premji. He talked about how he had to stop his studies midway at Stanford to take over the family business.

He recited the story about how Stanford was founded. You know... this one.

Of course, it's a myth. He could have an army of people who can write and/or proof read his speeches. So for him to get the facts wrong is unacceptable.