The other Stanford Commencement Speech – Dana Gioia

Even if you had not attended the commencement of the Class of 2012 at Stanford, you probably have a faint memory of the speech Steve Jobs delivered, as it played in unending loops on social media.

Why did his words resonate? Because he shared what he believed to be the fundamentals of his success though a multi-disciplinary, non-traditional approach to education.

“… you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

Steve Jobs in 2012 was a celebrity. The speaker in 2007 was not, and that caused a stir on ‘The Farm’. A self described working class kid – half Italian, half Mexican from Hawthorne, California, Dana Gioia was serving as the head of the National Endowment for the Arts when he was invited to speak.

In a culture where ‘connecting the dots’, creativity, innovation and curiosity are the current corporate buzz words, we seem to devalue the artists who live these words every day.

Gioia acknowledged the disagreement over his choice and used it to challenge the graduate’s definition of celebrity in his address.

“I know that there was a bit of controversy when my name was announced as the graduation speaker. A few students were especially concerned that I lacked celebrity status. It seemed I wasn’t famous enough. I couldn’t agree more. As I have often told my wife and children, “I’m simply not famous enough.”

And that—in a more general and less personal sense—is the subject I want to address today, the fact that we live in a culture that barely acknowledges and rarely celebrates the arts or artists.”

He then illustrated his point sharing his story:

“I grew up mostly among immigrants, many of whom never learned to speak English. But at night watching TV variety programs like the Ed Sullivan Show or the Perry Como Music Hall, I saw—along with comedians, popular singers, and movie stars—classical musicians like Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein, opera singers like Robert Merrill and Anna Moffo, and jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong captivate an audience of millions with their art.

The same was even true of literature. I first encountered Robert Frost, John Steinbeck, Lillian Hellman, and James Baldwin on general interest TV shows. All of these people were famous to the average American—because the culture considered them important.

Today no working-class or immigrant kid would encounter that range of arts and ideas in the popular culture. Almost everything in our national culture, even the news, has been reduced to entertainment, or altogether eliminated.”

Dana Gioia’s work today is poet and university lecturer. But he started his career in the same place, at Stanford. He earned both B.A. and M.B.A. degrees from his alma mater and pursued a business career, eventually serving as a Vice President of General Foods. In between he earned an MA in Comparative Literature from Harvard and in 1992 left the corporate world to be a full time writer.

On that day, at Stanford he was speaking to himself, challenging those who would go off to investment banks and Fortune 500 companies to consider their responsibility to American culture and the arts.

“To compete successfully, this country needs continued creativity, ingenuity, and innovation.

Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world—equal to but distinct from scientific and conceptual methods. Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory, and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories, or songs, or images.

Art delights, instructs, consoles. It educates our emotions. And it remembers. As Robert Frost once said about poetry, “It is a way of remembering that which it would impoverish us to forget.” Art awakens, enlarges, refines, and restores our humanity. You don’t outgrow art. The same work can mean something different at each stage of your life. A good book changes as you change.”

Steve Jobs and Dana Gioia gave the same speech five years apart. It’s about curiosity, creativity and innovation. How can we connect the dots if our world view has only one?

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