HERE ARE some of the people slated to be guest speakers at this year's college commencements:
Hillary & Bill Clinton, Geena Davis, Rahm Emanuel, James Franco, Sanjay Gupta, Eric Holder, Bobby Jindal, Matt Lauer, Barack & Michelle Obama, Colin Powell, Elie Wiesel, Oprah Winfrey, Fareed Zakaria.
What's wrong with this list?
Some would argue that it has too many pols. Or too few conservatives. The Facebook page "UCLA Students Against James Franco as Commencement Speaker" might say it's tarted up with too many showbiz celebs.
I have a different objection - too many successful people.
Eminence is the one universal condition to being a commencement speaker, and an often explicit theme of the speeches is, "Here lieth the path to success and happiness."
Two problems with this: Any narrative of success is bound to be at least a little bit dull, and successful people are almost never able to pinpoint what it was that made them so.
Take Warren Buffett. Here's a guy who must get asked five times a day how he became the most successful investor of his era. His answers - "Reinvest your profits," "Limit what you borrow" - are no different from what any fool could tell you. But Buffett isn't being cagey. He just doesn't know. Success is a wonderful thing, but it tends not to be the sort of experience that we learn from. We enjoy it - perhaps we even deserve it. But we rarely acquire wisdom from it.
Failure, on the other hand, is Harvard, Yale and Princeton rolled into one. We may not all have the self-knowledge to absorb failure's lessons, just as we may not all graduate with an education to go along with our diplomas. But people typically have a much easier time recounting, in often vivid detail, where they screwed up in life than they do explaining what went right.
Memoirs of spectacular failure have become a cottage industry - so much so that authors are sometimes tempted to embellish their narratives to make their stories even grimmer than they really are. Stories about life's wrong turns are sometimes exaggerated but seldom dull.
Consider selecting a speaker from the following alternate list:
Edmund L. Andrews, the author of the forthcoming "Busted: Life inside the great mortgage meltdown." Andrews put himself into a financial tailspin by taking out a subprime mortgage on a house he couldn't afford. A not-uncommon tale of woe these days, but Andrews happens to be an economics reporter for the New York Times who enjoyed a ringside seat to the meltdown in mortgage-backed securities.
Andrews' financial expertise proved no match for his powers of denial. Worthwhile message: If Andrews can be this stupid, anybody can be.
Katha Pollitt, Nation columnist and celebrated poet. In her excellent book "Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories," Pollitt depicts unflinchingly her failure to see that her live-in boyfriend was a philanderer and all-around jerk, and her subsequent obsession with stalking him via the Internet. Universities should consider inviting Pollitt to tell these mortifying tales to their graduating classes.
Worthwhile message: Don't let love make you stupid.
Eliot Spitzer. But I'm tired of hearing New York's ex-gov expel his sexual demons (or "gremlins," as he called them on the "Today" show). So scratch that.
Mark Rudd, author of "Underground: My life with SDS and the Weathermen," is a refreshing departure from Weather Underground vets like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, who continue to glamorize their radical past and to deny the Underground's violent intentions.
Rudd sees "very little positive" in the Weather Underground and much to be ashamed of, including its destruction of Students for a Democratic Society, the anti-war group the Weather Underground grew out of.
He doesn't deny that the explosives that killed three Underground members in a Greenwich Village brownstone in 1970 were intended to kill soldiers and their dates at Fort Dix, N.J. He feels bad about the toll his life took on his parents.
Worthwhile message: Don't intellectualize violence.
As failures go, this is a pretty genteel list, heavy on published authors, most of them affiliated with establishment publications.
But they are more familiar than most with the ways a life can go off the rails, and they've been willing to speak frankly about their failures. Don't expect that from Fareed Zakaria. *
Timothy Noah is a senior writer at Slate (slate.com), where this first appeared.