Skip to content ↓

Vonnegut gives commencement address--but not at MIT

Author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. wowed 'em at the Rice University Commencement without ever mentioning floss, calcium or sunscreen.

"I have not calculated how much your diplomas cost in time and money," Mr. Vonnegut told 8,000 people in the audience at the university's academic quadrangle on May 9, which included former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, who were attending grandson George Prescott Bush's graduation.

"Whatever those ballpark figures are," Mr. Vonnegut said, "they surely deserve this reaction from me today:

"Wow! Wow! Wow!"

Despite what many were led to believe from an Internet hoax last year, Mr. Vonnegut did not deliver the 1997 Commencement speech at MIT--a speech in which he allegedly advised graduates to wear sunscreen, sing, floss, stretch, get plenty of calcium, be kind to their knees, dance, read directions and respect their elders.

All that advice--and more--was contained in a Chicago Tribune column by Mary Schmich which was a parody of Commencement addresses. By the time the ether cleared, Ms. Schmich was explaining herself on Nightline, the NBC Nightly News and to MIT students over dinner.

"I think it was a darling column she wrote, but I would never do that to MIT," said Mr. Vonnegut, 75, author of 14 books from 1952-95, including Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five and Hocus Pocus, as well as numerous other short stories, essays and plays. "I certainly intend to be a lot more serious with Rice."

Mr. Vonnegut spoke for 15 minutes.

He advised the graduates not to fret if they did not win the Nobel Prize and compared the educational process to the struggle between good and evil. "This is Eden and you're about to get kicked out," he said. "Why? You ate the knowledge apple."

Before whipping out a bouquet of flowers to celebrate the new graduates, Mr. Vonnegut offered a few words of homespun advice. "When things are going sweetly and peacefully," he said, "please pause for a moment, and then say, out loud: 'If this isn't nice, what is?'"

Mary Schmich couldn't have said it better.

So it goes.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 3, 1998.

Related Topics

More MIT News