A failed commencement address

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A failed commencement address

The graduation season in May and June in the United States is a time for great speeches. From former presidents to prominent CEOs, actors and comedians, celebrities to respected figures speak at college graduations to celebrate the students with their wisdom on life.

Conan O’Brien, who is visiting Korea after he received a fan letter, is a graduate of Harvard University, and the talk show host is one of the notable graduation speakers. In 2000, he spoke at the graduation of his alma mater. “I’ve had a lot of success. I’ve had a lot of failure. I’ve looked good. I’ve looked bad. I’ve been praised. And I’ve been criticized. But my mistakes have been necessary. … Know that your mistakes are your own unique way of getting to where you need to be. And remember that the story is never over.” He also advised graduates to “make bigger mistakes.” Along with Steve Jobs’ commencement address to the graduating class at Stanford, Conan O’Brien’s speech was one of the top 10 commencement speeches of all time.

“Failure” is a keyword that not just Conan O’Brien but also most speakers never fail to mention in commencement addresses.

At the commencement of Princeton University in 2013, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke discussed the virtue of failures: “Nobody likes to fail, but failure is an essential part of life and of learning.” Last year, former President George W. Bush said at the commencement ceremony of Southern Methodist University, “As I like to tell the C students: You, too, can be president.” He humorously said that bad grades at school don’t mean failure in life.

While the high compensation for speeches sometimes makes commencements controversial, the center of the graduation in the United States is the graduates. Commencement speakers always offer encouragement and advice for those leaving the school. They discuss failures to motivate the young graduates to keep on trying and challenging themselves, not be deterred by small failures.

However, Korean graduations are different. Most of the graduates are not highlighted. Recently, the board chairman of Eungwang High School said in a commencement address that he was disappointed in the graduating class, as their admission rate to top schools was lower than his expectation.

Much less than encouraging students not to fear failure, he discouraged the students by saying those who didn’t get into top schools had failed. It is simply rude to those who should be celebrated for the occasion. Eungwang High School’s graduation is likely to be remembered as a failed event because of the board chairman who does not know who the commencement ceremony is for.

*The author is head of the new digital team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 16, Page 35

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