2014 Commencement Address
Remarks to the Class of 2014
by Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio
at the 227th Commencement Exercises
May 22, 2014
Our custom of having the president deliver commencement remarks dates back to an episode in the previous century when the invited speaker, distinguished and elderly, approached the podium with a stack of index cards and proceeded to read through them not once, not twice, but three times. Ninety minutes later a new tradition was borne. As a graduating senior, I liked hearing from the president. As a faculty member, I liked the brevity. Not until I actually had the responsibility of pulling some thoughts together did I harbor any doubts.
The epigraph for my remarks comes from the 1839 novel, Judith Bensadi. The author was Henry Ruffner, then the president of Washington College. He evidently had more time on his hands than the current president or was a far better multitasker.
It contains a passage about how groups of college students would go hiking and gaze down on the valley below from high atop a place called House Mountain—a mountain that, in Ruffner's words,
hides the setting sun and not infrequently turns the summer showers that come from the west wind...
It stands like an island of the air, with its huge body and sharp angles to cut the current of the winds asunder.
And here is how the students described their experience:
The little homesteads that spotted the hills and valleys under the mountain, the large farms and country seats farther away, and the bright group of buildings in the village of Lexington relieved the mind from the painful sublimity of the distant prospect and prepared us, after hours of delightful contemplation, to descend from our aerial height and return with gratified feelings to our college and our studies again.
Hold that image in your mind—the image of students gazing down upon their world from afar and then returning to their day-to-day lives. I'll come back to it.
For now, though, see if you can recall with me what I would describe as your first intellectual epiphany, that moment of youthful insight when you saw something in a different way. It might have been in fourth grade when a math equation suddenly made perfect sense. Or maybe it was during a music lesson when you heard notes come together in a sequence that struck you as beautiful. Or maybe you watched the tide roll out along a shoreline and leave behind strange creatures that dug into the sand before you could grab one, and you marveled at their movement and the mystery of their destination.
My epiphany happened in seventh grade. I picked up a book called the Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. I can't remember why I read it. A teacher hadn't assigned it. It was not my usual fare, which to that point in my life consisted of Superman comics and paperback biographies of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Willie Mays.
I discovered at the moment, clear as day, the power of the written word. As you know, the Red Badge of Courage is the Civil War story of Henry Fleming, a soldier in the Union Army, anxious and fearful of his first battle, but eager to prove his mettle. I read passages over and over again—depictions of brutal fighting; expressions of a young man's conflicted emotions; and vivid portrayals of loss, of death, of command.
I was stunned by how a skillful writer could convey through his characters and narrative the moral complexity of pursuing a righteous cause by killing fellow human beings.
My discovery of Crane's novel coincided with the discovery of a wider world beyond our neighborhood. Some older kids down the street were being drafted into the military to fight a war in a place called Vietnam. Watching the evening news, which everyone did back in those days and thinking of Henry Fleming, I sensed how those neighborhood kids must have felt. I could only imagine it, of course, but that was precisely the point. I could imagine it.
I began to understand as well the moral debates within our society. Those of us who lived during that time remember the personal losses; we remember also the uncertainty of knowing what we were fighting for, the divide within our nation, the heated arguments among neighbors over fences in the backyard and among family members around the dinner table.
I remember all that and I remember how a work of fiction depicting another time, another place helped me understand the world in which I lived.
A few years later, the country was facing another crisis. President Richard Nixon had been resoundingly re-elected in 1972. There had been a few news stories during the election about a burglary in an office complex called Watergate. Nothing major, it seemed, until several months later the break-in was revealed as the tip of a massive iceberg of political corruption. There were congressional hearings and Supreme Court cases; presidential news conferences where Nixon proclaimed he was not a crook and would never lie, and suggested that the accomplishments of his presidency should outweigh whatever means he used to pursue them.
At that time I was a student at Washington and Lee taking Professor Buchanan's course in the Legislative Process. We followed the news closely and even simulated the impeachment hearings, each of us playing our assigned roles. Mine was chief counsel to the majority party in the Senate.
On the side I was reading a wonderful novel, mainly to escape from the language of lawyers and constitutional scholars. I had heard about All the King's Men, written by Robert Penn Warren many years before. Here was the fictional political world of Louisiana, the story of a powerful populist Governor named Willie Stark, of his admiring and conflicted aides, especially Jack Burton, and of political enemies and scores being settled.
In the hands of a skillful writer was yet another complex morality tale, this one about how the raw exercise of power was not the same as leadership.
Do the ends ever justify the means? You can't grow grass without dirt, Machiavelli might have said. Governor Stark put it this way:
Dirt's a funny thing...Come to think of it there ain't a thing but dirt on this green God's globe except what's under water, and that's dirt too. It's dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain't a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that gets awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?
I returned to Professor Buchanan's course with a much deeper appreciation of why power corrupts, and how our own constitutional order tries mightily to come to grips with a fundamental problem of human nature.
A work of literature again helped me see the world differently.
Here's one more example.
You have heard me say—first when I met with you at orientation—that you will remember your four years here this way: at no other time in your life would you grew so much as an individual yet feel so much a part of a community. Learning how you are different from everyone else and, at the same time, learning what you share in common with everyone else, is a balance very, very difficult to achieve. Going too far in one direction diminishes your commitment to others; going too far in the other direction leads to conformity.
A few years ago, the famous French broadcaster Philippe Labro—think of him as the Roger Mudd of France—published The Foreign Student. It's a memoir-like novel based on Labro's own experience during the 1950's as a foreign student attending an unnamed college somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. As the narrator recalls the memories and the setting, see if you can locate where he landed.
They come back to haunt me like a piece of music that enfolds me, catapulting me back in time to where the present slips away and memory calls the tune: whiffs of green lawns; the bubbles of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer over the metallic taste of the chilled can; the scent of the bay rum the boys sprinkled on themselves on Saturday night when an entire male community primped and powdered for the great stampede to any girls' school within a sixty mile radius. Like an overdose streaming into my body the memories come; the trombones in Stan Kenton's band during the big spring concerts, with all the young people sitting on the lawn; the red mud on the long cement footbridge that crossed a straggling train track and linked the football field to the gym, comings and goings under the colonnade on a sparkling fall morning with the sun sliding across the grass from behind Lee Chapel. I hear the silence of the campus during classes when, through open windows, a tardy student's anxious steps echoed on the flagstones as he ran.
You should read Labro's novel for yourself someday. You will be able to imagine what it is like for someone struggling to explain this world we call Washington and Lee in all its complexity and in all its distinctiveness—and to assimilate himself while not conforming, to love the college but critically and with detachment.
Yet again, a work of literature helped me understand the world around me and to this day helps me understand a defining characteristic of this University and one of its challenges.
So what final lesson do I draw for you from all this?
A couple of weeks ago, there was yet another poll that caused those of my generation to issue the usual laments about your generation. It turns out young men and women don't read for pleasure anymore. That's not a good sign, but that's not where I am headed. The Red Badge of Courage, All the King's Men, and The Foreign Student were not assigned, mandatory readings, but that's not to say I read them for pleasure.
Nor is it to make the case for the virtues of what my colleague and distinguished literary scholar Suzanne Keen calls immersive reading. She has done that far better and far more eloquently than I can. Her address during the recent Reunion weekend can be found on our website. I have the text if you prefer to, well, immerse yourself in reading about the virtues of immersive reading.
The lesson I want to draw is consistent with those others, but different.
It turns out I do have a worry about society and your generation especially. Remember those students I mentioned before, the ones atop House Mountain gazing down on their world from afar? I want you to have a lifetime of House Mountain experiences that allow you to step back occasionally from the world and see it from afar. And I worry not just that those opportunities are harder to come by, but that your generation's capacity for taking advantage of them when they do present themselves has been diminished.
You need to have the capacity, the willingness, and the means to sometimes see your world from a different perspective.
Let me be clear: I am not talking about idle contemplation, or clearing your mind, or escaping from the world around you. I'm talking about engaging the issues even more deeply but with the widened or adjusted angles that come from stepping away from it. Literature works for me. You may well find other ways.
There are costs as well as benefits that come with our hyper-connected brave new, Twitter-based, Instagram-fixated, cell-phone obsessed, Linked-In world. The quality of argumentation diminishes in direct proportion to the ease of transmitting opinions. The ability to persuade through reason and evidence diminishes in direct proportion to the convenience of reading and seeing only what we want to.
The world we live in grows ever more complex, yet our angle of perspective grows smaller and smaller and our vision shrinks accordingly. Unless, that is, you find ways to scale those House Mountains from time to time, and widen your view.
There's one last point. Colleges and universities also are deeply connected to the world around them. That's a good thing, and on our best days at Washington and Lee, I think we are connected as well as anyone.
Our work in the professional fields, the poverty studies program, global learning, environmental studies, the IQ center, ethics, entrepreneurship, our internships and summer opportunity grants and many, many other examples are exactly the ways that our students can begin to engage the world and solve its problems, as they should.
But I hope you also look back on these four years as one of the few times in your lives when you could view the world from something like an academic House Mountain. If your time at Washington and Lee allowed you to grow as an individual while belonging to such a close community, maybe there's another feature of W&L you should remember. You will never again find it as easy to detach yourselves from the world around you and take a look from another angle.
You will simply have to be more intentional and deliberate about finding those opportunities. I have a few novels I can recommend.
With thanks to all of you for sharing these days and years with us, and on behalf of a grateful faculty and staff, I wish you the best of lives. Continue to learn and continue to make us proud.