Speeches and Opinion Pieces
2017 Commencement Address
May 25, 2017
It is a privilege to address the class of 2017 on the occasion of your graduation. I was so proud to be selected as your speaker, until I learned that the President always delivers the graduation remarks at Washington and Lee. Despite not having been chosen, it is an honor to speak to you on this day, which marks your passage from students to graduates of W&L.
I remember when I sat, as you do now, surrounded by classmates, wearing identical gowns, waiting to receive our degrees. It is a surreal experience. This is the moment toward which you have been working diligently since you entered college. But it is also a transition so momentous and abrupt that it is difficult to believe it is actually taking place. It's an out of body experience that feels like it must be happening to someone else. Your minds are swirling with emotion as you anticipate, a cruelly short time from now: saying tearful goodbyes to your closest friends, with whom you have spent these precious years; simultaneously sharing joyful reunions with your families, who are bursting with pride and happiness; and then facing the hard, inescapable reality of driving down the road, while your beloved campus recedes in the rearview mirror. It's also a safe bet you didn't get a lot of sleep last night.
All of which makes it difficult for you to listen to me. On my graduation day, a very distinguished speaker delivered what I am sure were wise remarks, from which I had much to learn. I can't recall a word he said. I was focused on the pressing question of whether my relationship with my girlfriend could survive long-distance. You can guess how that one turned out. So, I realize I am competing for your attention. But I'm going to keep talking anyway. And you can let me know at your 10th reunion whether anything I say this morning sticks with you.
Let's begin by returning to a simpler time, when you were newly minted first-year students. You were eager, anxious, and pretty clueless (though trying to make sure no one else could tell). When I arrived at college, I didn't know anything either, but fortunately my water polo captains had life all figured out. They were masters of the social scene, academically adept, and navigated the world with perfect ease. I looked forward to being 20 years old and knowing everything too. Two years later, I was proud to be elected captain but stunned to find that I still didn't have all the answers. I was sure, however, that the graduating seniors possessed the hidden key. But then the day came when I sat there, as you do today, about to receive my diploma, and it dawned on me ... We are all winging it.
This is the fundamental insight of existentialism, which I hope some of you encountered in the philosophy department. I'm a philosopher, and it's dangerous to give a philosopher the microphone, but bear with me. Existentialism gets its name from its claim that our existence (the fact we are here) precedes our essence (what we are). We make ourselves into who and what we are over time, and hopefully we learn something in the process.
I recently celebrated alumni weekend here at W&L with Generals who graduated between 15 and 50 years ago. You will, I hope and trust, return to Lexington for many of your own reunions in the future. When you do, you will have two basic types of conversation with your classmates. You will remember what you did together when you were here (the older you get, the taller the tales of your youthful adventures will grow). And you will marvel at where life has led you in the intervening years. The course your life takes will have twists, turns, and surprises that you cannot currently imagine. How it unfolds will depend upon circumstances beyond your control. But also upon the decisions you make in the shifting circumstances in which you find yourselves.
Existentialism offers good news: you are free to make those decisions. But it also emphasizes the sobering reality: you must make those decisions, whether you feel ready or not. With freedom comes responsibility - which the Honor System has taught you well. The secret is that decisions that seemed important recently (your choice of a major) and that seem so important now (your choice of a job or a graduate school) matter less than you think. I know you won't believe me because these choices are among the most significant you face. They are important to you, and I get that, and I encourage you to give them the serious thought they deserve. But you will act on limited experience and imperfect information, you'll make mistakes, you'll have regrets, and your life will turn out fine. It will turn out differently than you planned, but fine, and maybe even better than you expected. You will make the best decisions you can, given everything you know at the time, which is all any of us can ever do. And then you will see where it takes you and repeat the process until life's journey comes to an end.
This is true for all of us, and you can test it when you return to W&L for your 5th, your 10th reunion, your 25th reunion, your 50th reunion. It has certainly been true for me.
How did I become the President of Washington and Lee? No small child in his right mind dreams of becoming a university administrator. If this is a fate you would like to avoid, let the life story I am about to tell you serve as a cautionary tale. I didn't major in non-profit management. I went to a liberal arts college, as you have done, and majored in math and philosophy because they were the most interesting subjects. I soaked them up as well as I could and gave no thought at all to where they might lead.
Immediately after graduation I got an internship, as many of you have done. Mine was with a prominent divorce attorney in Washington, D.C. sifting through other people's misery on a daily basis turnout not to be for me. I headed to England to study more philosophy, but soon realized I wasn't ready to commit to graduate school.
I got another internship, this time at a company that develops power plants around the world. I knew nothing about electricity other than when you flip the switch the lights come on. I had never been interested in business. I took the internship because it paid me enough to rent a room in a house with my water polo buddies. After a few months, the company offered me a real job. They hired me because I was good with words and good with numbers (thank you, liberal arts education). They didn't ask about my major, much less whether I was a double major, or about my GPA. I worked hard, learned how power plant deals are structured, and got sent to London to buy pieces of the British electrical system. My job was to negotiate with a group of international banks to loan us the money. I was 24 years old, the most I had ever borrowed was $20 from my Mom, and this company trusted me to borrow $400 million. Maybe they thought I went to Washington and Lee. We pulled it off, and the company asked me to go to Singapore where they were setting up their first Asian office.
But a funny thing had happened in the two years: I really missed reading, writing, and thinking. I found myself drooling when I walked by bookstore windows. I had a great job, but generating electricity wasn't my passion and I tried to imagine whether I'd still enjoy it at the ancient age of 40. I faced a choice between alternate universes: become a globe-trotting energy executive or sit in a library, read Kant, and eat Ramen noodles. I followed my gut to Northwestern University, where I spent six years completely immersed in German philosophy.
I finally emerged, like a hibernating locust clutching a PhD, but the best I could do on the job market was a one-semester visiting gig. I worked like a madman to teach well enough that they'd want me to stay, and managed to cling to the position for two and a half years, with zero job security but loving every minute of it. Finally, a tenure-track spot opened up, and I spent the next decade teaching, writing books, being a faculty member, which I expected to do happily for the rest of my career.
May 25, 2017
Then one day the college president asked me to teach a course with him on the Philosophy and Economics of Higher Education. Why are we here, at a university like this one? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we allocate our resources to make it as excellent as possible? (I'll teach a version of this course at W&L this fall with Professor Strong.) Only later did I realize the whole thing was a set up: he was training me to be a president. My job is the practical application of those questions that lie at the intersection of philosophy and economics.
In retrospect, it might seem like my life has been aiming from the beginning at the role I occupy now. But you know better because I've told you how it really went down. It's been a series of choices, mistakes, coincidences, hard work, and dumb luck. I've been winging it.
What's the moral of the story? This is the wisdom dispensing part of the program and there will be a quiz at your 10th reunion. I have four pieces of advice.
First: Do what you love and work your tail off.
This will serve you well your whole life. Right now, apply it to your first job (if you have one), to the search for your first job (if you're looking for one), or to graduate school. Get your foot in the door (any door) and make yourself indispensable with your attitude, your effort, and your skill. Stick with it as long as you love it. If your passion for the particular path you are on starts to wane, then take my second piece of advice...
Don't be afraid to change courses.
Your major doesn't have to determine your first job. And your first job doesn't have to determine your career. Keep your eyes and your mind open for other possible paths. If you take piece of advice No. 1 (work your tail off), new doors will appear and open, often when you least expect. If you choose to walk through them, you will be surprised where they lead.
Third: Continue your liberal arts education.
This is not automatic, but you are well prepared to do it. Learn things beyond the bounds of your professional concerns. Expand your horizons and avoid becoming too narrowly focused. Seek out experience that transcends your current limitations. Doing so will enrich your life and it will sustain your success in a world that is constantly changing. It will also give you the courage to take piece of advice No. 2 (don't be afraid to change courses).
Fourth: Embrace your ignorance!
Ignorance is bliss. This is normally meant in the sense that there are some things you are better off not knowing. Nietzsche pointed out, for example, that if we could see all of the microbes crawling on our skin we would be paralyzed with disgust, so we should be grateful that our visual perception is so limited. I mean something different: without sufficient appreciation of our own ignorance, we cease to be curious, cease to be receptive to new ideas, and cease to be respectful of other people. Awareness of our own ignorance is a virtue: knowing that we do not know everything makes us humble, patient, open to compromise and collaboration. You may have noticed that these qualities are in short supply. Embracing your ignorance is good for you and good for the world.
So let's start right now. Ask yourself: "What is the most important thing about which I know too little or nothing at all?"
It could be Middle Eastern politics, or American health care, or climate science. Resolve to learn more about it. Don't make it easy on yourself, don't be in a hurry, don't limit yourself to perspectives with which you agree. Keep asking that question for the rest of your life: what is the most important thing I don't know? It will give you pleasure at the same time it makes you a better and more effective person.
I was an ignorant water polo captain at 20, an ignorant philosophy professor at 35, and I'm an ignorant university president at 50. I wouldn't have it any other way. Not knowing everything is fun. It makes work challenging and life rewarding.
If you take piece of advice No. 3 (continue your liberal arts education) you will enthusiastically embrace the recurring task of figuring out what you don't know. The one thing you can know is that the world will change, and you will change with it. And the education you received at W&L will see you through it all.
I look forward to seeing you at your 10th reunion, to hearing where life has taken you, and to asking whether you remember anything I've said today. But, for now, I send you on your way with congratulations, pride, and my very best wishes.