At Washington and Lee, the president provides the commencement address, a custom I strongly endorsed until I actually had to write one last year. My devotion to the tradition has further weakened this year.
We impose this duty on the president not because of some lofty principle, but rather to avoid a repeat of an occasion many years ago when an elderly speaker approached the podium with a stack of jumbled index cards, and held forth for quite some time as he went through them…not once, not twice, but three times.
The Board wisely determined that in future years our graduates and families should rest easy knowing that if they had to endure a worthless Commencement address, it would at least be short and, as an added bonus, inexpensive.
Over the years there have been a few exceptions to this custom. Once a very distinguished senator accepted our invitation to receive an honorary degree while also accepting an invitation we did not extend to speak to our graduates. As I understand it, we were caught on the horns of an etiquette dilemma, which we resolved by listening ever so politely to a very thorough analysis of the problem of nuclear proliferation and the threat posed by North Korea.
Though you have the good fortune not to be burdened by a traditional commencement address, you do have to hear from me, the president you are burdened with. When I speak at alumni chapters throughout the country, almost always a member of the audience will come up afterwards and ask me if I knew the legendary Francis Pendleton Gaines, president of the University from 1930 to 1959. I did not; that was well before my time. The alumnus will then invariably say, “He was a good speaker.”
I place that in the same category as another remark I often hear. “President Ruscio, your son is so good-looking. He looks just like his mother.”
I’d like to think I’m reading too much into those comments. But there is no mistaking the intent behind what I would call the political insult, those classic verbal daggers enshrined forever in the lore of political discourse. Winston Churchill occupies a privileged place in the pantheon. During an exchange one day in Parliament, Lady Nancy Astor lashed out at Churchill and declared that if he were her husband, she would poison his coffee. “And if you were my wife,” Churchill responded, “I would drink it.”
Senator Chauncey Depew of New York once looked upon President William Howard Taft’s very round belly and asked him who he would name the child after he gave birth. “If it is a girl,” Taft patiently replied, “I will name her after her mother. If it is a boy, I will name him junior. But if it is, as I suspect, just gas, then I will call it Chauncey Depew.”
In more recent times, Senator Fritz Hollings was in the midst of hotly contested election. During a debate, his opponent challenged him to submit to a drug test. Hollings readily agreed, on the condition that his opponent submit to an IQ test.
Now we laugh at these, of course, as we should, but I want to ask you in our final minutes together to go forth in this world with a keen sensitivity for the norms of civil public discourse. Some day soon, you will be leaders, in your communities, in your professions, your churches, neighborhoods, and perhaps even in the political world. And if I harbor one fear for the future of our democracy—actually I harbor many but this afternoon I will stick to just this one—it is that we are losing the capacity for rational and reasoned public conversations.
The loss of that capacity comes at a time when we need it most.
John Hale, the noted historian, described how we developed our modern understanding of the virtue of civility. As the Renaissance citizens of the various city- states of Europe began to trade more frequently with each other, as they engaged in commerce within uncertain legal and political structures, they needed protocols that fostered understanding, trust, and a basic respect among strangers—despite differences of language, history, and religion.
Civility is among the virtues that allow diverse people to work together. The problem is that civility is hardest to achieve under conditions when we need it the most. But that’s the world we live in. Increasingly so.
Now here at Washington and Lee, we rightly speak of civility as a core defining virtue. You heard yesterday from an alumnus, John Miller, who chose that topic without any prompting from me. We look with pride to those alumni who made their mark in public life as models of principled civility.
The late Lewis Powell, Supreme Court Justice, known for reasoned, dispassionate analysis of complex and sensitive subjects….Roger Mudd, whose recent memoir tells of his days at CBS when he was perhaps the most respected television reporter. His story is a reminder of the power of journalists when they act with integrity and professionalism…Linwood Holton, who in 1970 became the first Republican Governor of Virginia in 100 years. His dedication to civil rights and social justice during a difficult time in Virginia exemplified what has come to be known in the academic literature as transformational leadership…Senator John Warner of Virginia, now nearing the end of a career that cannot possibly be described without the word statesmanship appearing somewhere in the narrative.
Inspired by these individuals and many others over the years, this University has set the bar high. Here on campus, we do not always meet our highest aspirations, and when we do not we invariably are charged with either hypocrisy or with setting idealistic or unreachable standards.
I simply refuse to let you leave thinking that our concern with civility is misplaced, unrealistic, or not appropriate for this day and age.
I have thought about civility not just as a university president and not just over these last few months but over the course of a career as a political scientist interested in how diverse democratic societies solve their problems. It’s become clear to me that common decency doesn’t just arise out of the mist. It requires a few other things.
One is empathy—the ability to understand and appreciate the needs and interests of others. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is good moral advice. It is also a good way to become aware of the common bond of humanity that unites all of us. During your time here, we hope you have acquired the capacity to develop empathy, and we hope you continue to develop it throughout your lifetime.
You can do that in many ways, including one of my personal favorites—reading literature. Martha Nussbaum, a scholar of law, ethics, and philosophy, calls this the power of narrative imagination, placing yourself in the position of a character in a different place and time.
I make that assertion with great trepidation because in our midst is Suzanne Keen, professor of English, who has literally written the book on empathy and the novel (available I hope in our bookstore for purchase after our ceremony). She questions whether reading novels leads to empathy and she is downright skeptical that even if it does, altruism or exemplary citizenship will wondrously follow. I don’t disagree, and if I did it would be with great civility.
But I do believe that immersing yourself in a work of literature hones an intellectual skill that enables you to delve into a moral dilemma with the heart and mind of another person. I am not using empathy here in a mushy, group-hug sense. I am using it in a firm, concrete, rigorous intellectual sense of gaining respect for others by understanding how they feel and think.
Another requisite for civility is humility. The only thing I am certain of these days is that certitude is a bad thing. And yet the overriding and predominant mode of public debate is verbal jousting between individuals who seek to prevail rather than persuade, whose arrogance leaves no room to learn from another, whose conceit and condescension degrade conversation rather than elevate it.
It’s more than a matter of style. It’s a mindset of black and white that allows no shades of grey, no tolerance for ambiguity, and no search for additional evidence or points or view. Why bother if you have it all figured out?
You will spend your lives in a world bounded on one end by those who possess absolute certitude and whose voices overwhelm through sheer volume…and on the other by those with perpetual self-doubt who choose simply not to participate in the great debates of our time.
I wish for you a lifetime somewhere in the center, at an ideal equilibrium point where the courage of your convictions intersects with tolerance for the reasonable convictions of others who don’t think like you.
The third requisite for civility is preserving a boundary between public and private. I always wondered when I would reach the point in life that I would have to begin a sentence with the words “as a member of an older generation.” The day has arrived.
As a member of an older generation, I worry about the virtual disintegration of the boundary between public and private among your generation. I am not ready for a post-gossip world, where our casual, even normal interest in gossip is no longer restrained by reticence and decorum.
Respect for others requires a respect for what they consider personal. A world in which we feel free to talk about others without restraint and believe that others talk about us without restraint is not a civil world. It is one of mistrust, misunderstandings, and harsh judgments. It is also a world of paradox, in which an apparently boundless interest in the lives of others is actually a deception, a disguise for what really is a focus on the self and how others look upon us.
A couple of years ago, there was a small conference on campus, with visitors from afar. One was a trustee for one of those New England liberal arts colleges that like to compare themselves to us. At dinner that night, he and I did make some comparisons and we found that our two colleges had much in common—dedicated faculty; smart, athletic, and ambitious students; a partnership with a charming and historic small town; a good women’s tennis team that we beat once this year.
But, he said, there was one difference. When he walked from the parking deck that morning, every Washington and Lee student he met greeted him and a few even offered to show him around. That, he said, would never have happened at his college.
Now civility goes beyond friendliness, but I mention his story to underscore my belief that we have the ingredients for something special here, we will continue to aim high, and please, do not take for granted the sensibilities that you acquired during your time here.
You will soon be leaving a community that cares about virtues—civility being one of them, but integrity, humility, and tolerance are others that readily come to mind. You will be entering a world that seems to care less about them. You will be tempted to discount their importance or relevance.
But in those moments, Washington and Lee alumni find they have a very high barrier to climb before landing on the other side. You go forth into this world with a conscience formed at least in part by your experience at Washington and Lee. You go forth convinced that character counts. I encourage you to tap into that reservoir of moral awareness that you filled during your time here—and I encourage you to find ways to continually replenish it.
At the beginning of this ceremony, I asked you to take one last look around, and I conclude with the same request. In just a few short moments, your student days will be relegated to that portion of your mind reserved for memories. Recall now some of those places, those days, those vivid pictures one last time—as students.
The letter you received from the admissions office. Freshmen check-in day. The early morning walks across the footbridge, from the sorority houses to class. The final football, lacrosse, or volleyball game of your career as a General. Goshen Pass. Mock Convention. Your senior recital. The staff member who cared about you during a rough patch. The faculty member who discovered within you an aptitude for art, or science, or philosophy and nurtured it into a passion. The friends you made who will be part of your lives forever, who will celebrate with you in the years to come marriages, the birth of your children, and your accomplishments.
This afternoon with your departure, the University in your eyes will begin its inexorable decline away from its perfection. Yes, when the history of the University is finally written, it will be recorded that Washington and Lee reached its peak on June 5, 2008.
I will surely hear from you in the years to come, asking what in the world is going on. But just as surely you will reconcile in your own minds the logic-defying truth of Washington and Lee: it was perfect when you here, even as it gets better with each passing day, each passing year, and each new generation of students.
Come back frequently, and know that while the geographic relationship between you and the university will change, the bonds of friendship will endure and grow even stronger. Think of us often, just as we will continue to think of you.
We wish you well. Godspeed and Good Luck.