Commencement 2011

Remarks to the Class of 2011
by Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio
at the 224th Commencement Exercises
May 26, 2011

Thank you, Scott, for your words today and your service to the University these last four years. We are grateful, and we wish you the very best at Wake Forest and beyond. I join you in your welcome of the George family and the Dyers, and applaud you and your class for exemplifying the meaning of friendship, mutual support and affection.

As many of you know, one of the long-standing customs at W&L is that the president gives the Commencement address. The tradition goes back a long time. Its origins are practical, not principled. One year, so the story goes, the commencement speaker was a distinguished but elderly man who approached the podium with a frighteningly large stack of note cards, which he read through not once, not twice, but three times, as the graduates and their families sat, much like today baking in the sun, anxiously awaiting their diplomas.

Never again, declared the faculty, who, of course, were concerned only for the welfare of the students, without any regard to their own. Agreed, said the trustees, who even back then were only too happy to put in place a long-term cost-savings measure. The president doesn't get an honorarium. I confess that during my days on the faculty, I thought it a fine tradition. Now in the position of actually having to write something, I have my doubts.

So you are stuck with me. But rest easy. In keeping with the spirit of the new Spring Term, my comments will be only two-thirds as long as previous ones.

In his novel Nobody's Fool, Richard Russo describes one of his characters this way: "Clive, Sr., was not a profoundly stupid man, but he missed his fair share of what Miss Beryl referred to as life's nuances." May you never be described that way. You should go through the rest of your life seeking what one of my predecessors, Francis Pendleton Gaines, called something "finer than competence, nobler than success." You should see things that others do not; you should exhibit reverence for the past while being mindful of the future. You should cultivate an appreciation for nuance.

When I was your age, I would run from the person who, burdened by years of experience, sees all kinds of trends in society that are cause for lament and who wants to tell others, especially young people, how things are going to hell in a hand basket. I would run from the person I am slowly becoming.

But I do worry about a society that takes seriously a potential presidential candidate with gravity-defying hair whose position on China is summed up in two words, "our enemies"; whose strategy for energy is "to seize Iraq's oil fields"; and who cannot understand why his simultaneous support for a constitutionally derived right to privacy and the right to life requires at least some explaining.

And I worry about how we mistake information for knowledge and wisdom. I cannot easily sum up what we do here at Washington and Lee, but one simple description is that we seek to move students up a ladder that begins with information, then up to knowledge and then, ultimately, wisdom. That's becoming quite a challenge in a society that pushes people down the ladder. It is easy these days to get very good data in quantities undreamed of only a few short years ago, at speeds equally unimagined. But making sense of that information seems so much harder. The whole becomes subservient to the bits and pieces, the forest to the trees. Wisdom is not the same as more and better information, but we seem to think so.

And I worry about the depiction of science as merely another form of opinion. It is not. But what has made matters so confusing is that so many public-policy questions, which are debatable, involve scientific questions, which are also debatable, but in different ways. Global climate change and stem-cell research are only two examples.

That is why it is so important for everyone, not just scientists, to understand the meaning of empirically verified conclusions; and for everyone, not just moral philosophers, to acquire the capacity for ethical reasoning. Our public officials rarely understand science. But, to be fair, our scientists rarely understand that controversy in a political realm gets resolved differently than in a scientific arena. The problems of science and public policy are getting closer even as the people in each realm grow farther apart.

And I worry about the obsession of our political system with short-term fixes at a time when the problems are precisely the ones with the worse long-term consequences. I am quite sure that the dominant policy question of your lifetimes will be, what do we owe to future generations? More so than in the past, the consequences of what we do-whether it is in the environment or in our fiscal management-will have costs that are too easily imposed on future generations, while those making the decisions now find it so easy to save the benefits for themselves and for those who keep electing them.

Lest I sound too cranky, I hasten to add that I don't worry about all of you. I have watched your intellectual and moral development these last four years. You will do fine if you keep in mind a few things, beginning with the obvious observation that while the lessons you have learned here will serve you well, the world you are about to enter is different than the one you are leaving.

Here, for example, we ask you to be trustworthy, and we ask you to trust others. But be prepared for the moment when somebody calls you naïve and foolish for being telling the truth. Living a life of virtue in a world without virtue, they will say, is futile. You will be presented with the false choice of looking out for yourself or being honest. It will be a false choice even in the world you are about to enter.

And in this world of moral complexity, search for nuance rather than simplicity. There are days when I gaze with envy upon those who live huddled in a security blanket of their own certitude, who seem to have it all figured out, who can discern motives merely by looking at a person, and who therefore have no need to listen to or learn from others. But most days I realize how uninteresting a life that would be, even if it would be easier, and how sad it would be to look upon all who disagree with you as morally obtuse or stupid. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin puts it this way:

"Happy are those who....have, by their own methods, arrived at clear and unshakeable convictions about what to do and what to be that brook no possible doubt. I can only say that those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma are victims of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding of what it is to be human."

I wish I could say our own community here at Washington and Lee is free of such certitude. And I wish I could say that when it does occur, we can chalk it up to youthful indiscretion. But it happens sometimes among those of us who have the experience and intellectual maturity to know better. Washington and Lee is less afflicted by this problem than any other place I have been, and I am grateful for that. But that only means that when it rears its head, it is all the more painful and harsh.

Out there you will see much more of it. It is, regrettably, the predominant mode of public discourse these days. But the volume of an argument is no measure of its quality, and certitude is a poor proxy for rational thinking. If a previous time marked the loss of innocence, ours might well be marked by the loss of nuance.

Unless, that is, you play a part in recovering it, at least in your own lives. I wish for you a life enriched by the insights found in literature, the perspective that comes from reading history and the wonder that comes from witnessing the creativity of art and music. I wish for you a life in which you have the courage of convictions, to be sure, but you also have the humility to know that you have so much still to learn. I wish for you, as Gaines said, "something finer than competence, something nobler than success."

When you came here as freshmen, I told you that you would learn in common what you could not learn alone.

But in truth, that pattern of learning from others will continue after you leave here. Or it should. Washington and Lee has given you not just an education. It has given you a liberal arts education. In addition to whatever knowledge or wisdom you picked up along the way, you acquired a disposition or a temperament-a way of thinking, but also a feeling of respect for others; an intellectual self-assurance, but also a reverence for the vast world you will never completely understand, although I hope you never stop trying.

We, of course, wish you the very best. We are proud of you today, proud of what you have already accomplished, and even more proud in our anticipation of what is still to come.