2016 Commencement Address May 26, 2016
We come to the point in the program where I remind you why you are hearing from me as president of Washington and Lee and not from Stephen Colbert, Oprah, Seth Myers or Spike Lee, or from someone you never heard of because those celebrities were either booked or way too expensive.
The explanation for this custom has been embellished over the years. As the legend grew, facts conveniently fell by the wayside. So the story now goes like this.
Once upon a time, a distinguished elderly alumnus was called upon to enlighten the graduating class. On a hot, humid day, far worse than today, he approached the podium with a stack of index cards, and proceeded to read through them not once, not twice, but three times. After an hour or two, he was gently led away from the podium.
That afternoon, the trustees, meeting in emergency session while also trying desperately to re-hydrate themselves, vowed "never again." If the graduates had to be bored by pompous declarations, our own president was perfectly capable of doing that without an honorarium and in a shorter amount of time.
Thus, a venerated tradition was borne. And thus you are stuck with me.
I confess I am torn this morning between a message of optimism and one of pessimism.
The optimism comes from seeing you in action these last four years. I watched you compete on the playing fields and perform on the stages in Lenfest and Wilson halls. I saw you in the Lexington and Rockbridge County community helping our local citizens. I read your writings, and I heard you speak, and celebrated with you the news of graduate fellowships and ODAC championships. I attended your Mock Convention - apparently another accurate one. I admired how you responded with resolution to the setbacks that you faced and with compassion to the ones that others faced.
There is a lot of collective character in the Class of 2016 and a lot of personal character in each of you individually.
I'd like to think that W&L had a hand in shaping that character. This is not a perfect community by any means. Aspiring to high ideals is not the same as always achieving them in everything that we do. But we have standards that guide our behavior, which in this day and age unfortunately places us in an increasingly lonely corner of higher education.
Those standards include civility. When free and equal people with different backgrounds and perspectives come together, disagreement is inevitable. In that contentious swirl of competing views, assertiveness is called for, but so, too, is reticence. You have to develop the courage of your convictions while entertaining the possibility you could be wrong. And you have to resist the temptation to demonize those who disagree with you as morally deficient just because they may not share your views.
I would be surprised and extremely disappointed if you leave here not having changed your mind about some important matter at some point along the way. It would be sad if that were the case. It wouldn't bode well for your future. One of my fellow college presidents has said that the purpose of college is to make the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life. If you have already settled all the important questions you will encounter down the road, if the interior of your mind and the architecture of your belief system will benefit from no further renovation, you are assured a future of bland and foolish consistency. You still have a lot to learn.
In all this, civility matters. It makes possible conversations and debates where the purpose is to understand, not to prevail. Civility is the mark of those who have something to say, but can respect others who also have something to say. It elevates discourse. It leads to interesting and rewarding engagement with those around you.
If civility is one of our touchstones, reason, its close companion, is another.
Never was the volume, intensity, spontaneity, or even the passion of an argument a measure of its quality. Positions supported by reason have greater force than those supported by emotion. In the civic arena, those outbursts that we hear of anger, frustration, and personal insults are like empty calories - a satisfying short term solution to hunger with long term effects that are totally unhealthy.
I hope we have shown you how to widen the space between thought and speech, so that reflective judgment can fill that space and influence what you say-or what ends up on your Twitter feed. There may be a few people for whom the thought that immediately occurs to them is a carefully reasoned, informed, and articulate point of view worth hearing. But I've been around much longer than you and have yet to meet such a person. Revealing whatever is on your mind, unfiltered and impulsively, is frankly of little interest to others. It is self-indulgent, narcissistic and arrogant.
One of the most beautiful phrases heard in an institution of higher learning is "on second thought and after reconsideration." Consider that a sign of intellectual strength, not weakness.
To civility and reason, let's add one more: a sense of a common good.
Your undergraduate years at Washington and Lee are unlike any others you have encountered before and unlike any still to come. Never again will you grow so much as individuals, yet feel so much a part of a community. I'm not sure I can explain how exactly that comes about. But this university proves the counter-intuitive proposition that strong individuals make for a strong community. We are comfortable in who we are as individuals, even as we know that fulfillment in life comes from developing a commitment to something greater than the self.
The Honor System, when the occasional temptation to advantage yourself is restrained by an ethic of trust, may be the best example of how you have lived that lesson every day; but there are others.
So you leave Washington and Lee with what deTocqueville called habits of the heart. You acquired a sensibility that leads you, from instinct and habit, to behave in certain ways toward others, to pursue your own passions and interests while helping others pursue theirs. A finely tuned moral compass guides you.
And you leave with certain habits of the mind. In the late 1800s Cardinal Newman wrote his classic text, "The Idea of a University." He said the purpose of a liberal education was to develop a kind of intellectual temperament-a way of thinking. It lasts through life, Newman writes, and its attributes are "freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom." I believe you have exactly that habit of the mind.
Why, then, is my optimism tempered by a degree of pessimism?
You are leaving a community that cares a great deal about these matters and entering a world that increasingly does not.
This is an age of incivility, an age where emotion matters more than reason. It is an age of divisiveness and constant reminders of our differences instead of what unites us. It is an age where, astonishingly, the urge to say whatever is on your mind, whenever it is on your mind-whether in social media or in presidential campaigns-has been elevated to a virtue.
One of the clichés of commencement talks is that these last four years have been the most formative of your lives. Maybe. But I am certain that for each of you the next four years will be equally formative. You will be embarking on careers, joining new communities, entering professions, and forming meaningful and even permanent relationships with others. During these past four years, your character was shaped in important ways. I think that's the good news. The next four years may have an equal effect, and that is not a source of comfort for me.
We are in the midst of a dismal national political campaign that will only get more divisive, more emotional, less civil, and less rational.
A nasty campaign is bad enough, but I worry even more about what comes after. Campaigns end; then governance begins. Sadly, the tenor of our politics at the moment, the tone of our public discourse, the fact-free zone in which critical judgments of our future must be made, and the exploitation of our fears rather than a call to raise our sights, virtually ensure that no matter the outcome of this election, it may well be that the worst is yet to come.
Here is the ultimate irony: the campaign in which we find ourselves emanates from the citizenry's current frustrations with the ineffectiveness of our leaders and government, but when it ends we are assured of a polarization that will lead to even greater discontent with our leadership and political system. It's a downward spiral. And I don't know how this ends well.
The late New York State Gov. Mario Cuomo was, I think, the first to say that we campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose. The utter lack of poetry in this campaign portends an utter lack of prose in the years ahead.
So I ask you to brace yourselves against the political and even moral headwinds that you will face. And I ask you to constantly remember and consciously call upon your experiences here. Remember those habits of the heart that you acquired. Practice the habits of the mind you have developed. Don't succumb to the cynicism and meanness of the age in which we find ourselves. Don't seek refuge from a complex world in the safe harbors of simplicity and slogans. Act with dignity, decency, and civility. Become known as the Washington and Lee woman or man who offers reasonable and reasoned positions in the midst of chaos. And most of all, be someone who cares about others more than yourself.
The world needs people like you, and in that final spirit of optimism, I am confident we have prepared you well and you are ready for the challenge. On this day especially, I'll let my faith in you prevail over my concern with our politics at the moment.
Continue to make us proud. We are counting on you.
And thank you for spending your college years with us.