Kurt Vonnegut Teaches Grads What Artists Do

Syracuse University students get a lesson in what artists do from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1994 graduation speech.

  • I had a good uncle named Alex, who said, when life was most agreeable—and it could be just a pitcher of lemonade in the shade—he would say, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”
    Illustration by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  • The teacher whose name I mentioned when we all remembered good teachers asked me one time, “What is it artists do?” And I mumbled something. “They do two things,” he said. “First, they admit they can’t straighten out the whole universe. And then second, they make at least one little part of it exactly as it should be."
    Illustration by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
  • “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?,” by Kurt Vonnegut, includes seven college graduation speeches, one given to the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, and one from when Vonnegut was awarded the Carl Sandburg Award.
    Cover courtesy Seven Stories Press

Best known as one of America’s most astonishing and enduring contemporary novelists, Kurt Vonnegut was also a celebrated commencement address giver. If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? (Seven Stories Press, 2014), compiled and introduced by Dan Wakefield, includes nine of Vonnegut’s speeches—seven of which were delivered to university graduates. Vonnegut—who never graduated from college himself—delivers funny, yet serious advice and insight without being pretentious. The following graduation speech shares an anecdote from Vonnegut's own educational past.

How I Learned From a Teacher What Artists Do

Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York
May 8, 1994

There are three things that I very much want to say in this brief hail and farewell. They are things which haven’t been said enough to you freshly minted graduates nor to your parents or guardians, nor to me, nor to your teachers. I will say these in the body of my speech, I’m just setting you up for this.

First, I will say thank you. Second, I will say I am truly sorry—now that is the striking novelty among the three. We live in a time when nobody ever seems to apologize for anything; they just weep and raise hell on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The third thing I want to say to you at some point— probably close to the end—is, “We love you.” Now if I fail to say any of those three things in the body of this great speech, hold up your hands, and I will remedy the deficiency.

And I’m going to ask you to hold up your hands this early in the proceedings for another reason. I first declare to you that the most wonderful thing, the most valuable thing you can get from an education is this—the memory of one person who could really teach, whose lessons made life and yourselves much more interesting and full of possibilities than you had previously supposed possible. I ask this of everyone here, including all of us up here on the platform—How many of us, how many of you, had such a teacher? Kindergarten counts. Please hold up your hands. Hurry. You may want to remember the name of that great teacher.

I thank you for being educated. There, I’ve thanked you now; that way I don’t have to speak to a bunch of nincompoops. For you freshly minted college graduates, this is a puberty ceremony long overdue. We, whose principal achievement is that we are older than you, have to acknowledge at last that you are grown-ups, too. There are old poops possibly among us on this very day who will say that you are not grown-ups until you have somehow survived, as they have, some famous calamity—the Great Depression, World War II, Vietnam, whatever. Storytellers are responsible for this destructive, not to say suicidal, myth. Again and again in stories, after some terrible mess, the character is able to say at last, “Today, I am a woman; today I am a man. The end.”

Edy Benjamin
5/19/2014 10:22:04 AM


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