Speeches and Opinion Pieces
2018 Commencement Address
May 24, 2018
It is a privilege to address the class of 2018 on the occasion of your commencement. I would have been so proud to be selected as your speaker, but of course the president always delivers the graduation remarks at Washington and Lee. Despite not having been chosen, it is a great honor.
I remember when I sat, as you do now, surrounded by classmates, wearing identical gowns, waiting to receive our diplomas. 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 like 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 recalling your very first moments at W&L. It was early September, 2014, and the night before the start of fall term classes you all assembled, eager and nervous, for honor orientation in Lee Chapel. President Ruscio welcomed you, made introductory remarks, and then he left, dramatically symbolizing the fact that responsibility for the Honor System rests with the students at Washington and Lee. Lucy Shapiro, President of the Executive Committee, invited you to join this community. Equally importantly, she invited you to leave it, if you could not commit to being worthy of its trust. You chose to stay, and we are glad you did.
Today marks the conclusion of the college journey that began that night. In four short years, you have lived, worked, and played on every inch of this beautiful campus. From Graham-Lees and Gaines, to Red Square and 3rd Year Housing, which you were the first class to occupy. From D-Hall and Hillel House, to Leyburn Library and the Science Center. From Wilson Field and the Warner Center, in which you were the last class to compete, to the Outing Club barn, House Mountain, and the Maury River. You have made this place your own, which it will always be.
Sitting here this morning, you have come full circle. Lee Chapel is where you entered this community and where you now take leave of it. Lee Chapel opened its doors exactly 150 years ago today, just in time to host commencement in 1868. Young people like you graduated from Washington College and set forth from Lexington to seek their futures. They traveled by foot or by horse or by rail, because neither the automobile, nor the airplane, nor Uber had been invented. It was a very different time.
And yet this year, your senior year, that period immediately after the Civil War has been decidedly present. When you returned to school last fall, I appointed the Commission on Institutional History and Community, and charged it with leading us in a thoughtful examination of our history and with identifying opportunities to teach and represent it as well as possible, for the educational benefit of everyone who spends time on this campus.
In that spirit, I want to spend a little time thinking about the history of the building behind me. It means different things to each of you. Some of you have used it for worship or reflection. Some of you have entered it to listen to distinguished speakers or to be inducted into Phi Beta Kappa or ODK. Some of you have introduced it to prospective students and families on Admissions tours. Some of you may not have not set foot in it since your honor orientation. But whatever Lee Chapel means to you, however you think about it, however it makes you feel, you will always have it in common, as the iconic visual centerpiece of the campus, and as the place where you first came together as a class, and as the place where you will shortly receive your diplomas and celebrate your graduation.
So, let us consider its history, taking as our guide a new book by local author David Cox, Lee Chapel at 150, which I recommend to anyone who would like to know more about this university.
When Robert E. Lee arrived at Washington College, there was no proper chapel, just a room in Washington Hall, right where my office now happens to be. At the end of his first academic year, in 1866, President Lee reported to the Trustees that "a larger chapel is much needed. The room [currently] used is too small and badly adapted to the purpose. It is moreover required for additional lecture rooms, into which it could be conveniently converted." The trustees were persuaded by Lee's argument that the project was necessary to enhance both the spiritual and the academic life of the college and they gave their approval for its construction, which took place over the following two years. The chapel was the first new building at Washington College after the Civil War, and likely the first on campus constructed without slave labor.
The chapel was then, as it is now, used for both religious and secular purposes. During Lee's presidency, it held non-denominational services, lectures, concerts, administrative meetings, and even YMCA functions. It was the Elrod Commons of its day.
Upon Lee's death, in 1870, the faculty voted to preserve his office as he left it and the trustees asked his family to bury him at the chapel, which thus became also a mausoleum. The recumbent statue, commissioned to mark Lee's grave, arrived in Lexington in 1875, but it sat in a box for seven years, awaiting the addition to the chapel that was needed to house it. When the expanded chapel reopened in 1883 its focal point was the newly installed statue, and the building now contained portraits, including those of Washington, Jefferson, Madison and other dignitaries from Virginia. The chapel still served the active needs of the community, but now it also did double-duty as a place of pilgrimage for those paying homage to Lee.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the chapel increasingly came to be regarded as the shrine of the South. The 100th anniversary of Lee's birth, in 1907, was commemorated with ceremonies around the country, and the President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, called for the creation of a national memorial to Lee. Here at W&L, Confederate flags decorated the chapel, probably for the first time, for the occasion, and it had now become standard to refer to the building as "Lee Chapel."
After World War I, enrollment grew, and the chapel, now 50 years old, was again too small for the university community. W&L President Henry Lewis Smith, who harbored a strong dislike for the chapel's Victorian aesthetic in contrast to what he regarded as the much more beautiful the Greek Revival of the Colonnade, proposed to knock it down and replace it with a structure twice its size. But the Lexington chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy successfully fought the idea. They suggested that if the university needed a larger gathering space, it should build a separate assembly hall somewhere else on campus and leave Lee Chapel alone.
The museum beneath the chapel opened in 1928. Two years later, at the outset of what would prove to be the 30-year presidency of Francis Pendleton Gaines, Confederate flags were placed permanently around the statue of Lee, where they remained until just four years ago.
In 1963, the chapel required significant renovation, which was completed in time for the graduation of those alumni who celebrated their 55th reunion this year. Those young men, when they entered the chapel, saw the portraits reduced to two, those of Washington and Lee that hang today. President Fred Cole remarked that in the course of the first century of its existence the chapel had come to serve five distinct purposes: a symbol of Lee's influence on the university; a place of worship and reflection; an auditorium; an art gallery; and a public museum and national shrine — all at once.
Since then, the chapel has continued to be all of those things, hosting assemblies, speakers, exhibitions, memorial services, and more than a few weddings. The 21st century has seen the focus shift increasingly to Lee the educator, with the bicentennial of his birth on that theme in 2007, and the removal of the Confederate flags in 2014.
The chapel has been more than Lee ever imagined or would have wanted. He conceived a simple, undecorated space that would bring the community together and serve its spiritual and academic needs. Lee did not plan a mausoleum, or a museum, and certainly not a Confederate memorial, which he urged his contemporaries not to erect, on the grounds that such markers would keep open the sores of war. How right he was.
The need that Lee sought to address, when he accepted the presidency of Washington College and built this chapel, remains with us today. In all of our differences we need to find and forge enough in common to constitute a genuine community. This project is critical not only at W&L, but to every town and state in the country, and to the nation itself.
It is also the focal point of the work of Danielle Allen, professor of politics at Harvard, who spoke to you last September at the Convocation ceremony with which your senior year formally began. Her talk that day was entitled "Democracy 101" and in it she drew upon ideas developed in two of her brilliant books, Our Declaration and Talking to Strangers.
Allen poses and pursues a question critical to the success of any democracy: "What modes of citizenship can make a citizenry whole without covering up difference?"
She warns us that democratic communities are threatened when citizens regard each other with mutual distrust and disdain. We cannot govern ourselves effectively or live together happily if we cannot talk to each other, negotiate in good faith, and achieve effective compromise. Because trust among fellow citizens is not automatic, it must be cultivated. We need, Allen says, "muscular habits of trust production." I wish I had coined that phrase. "Muscular habits of trust production" are the key to successful communities.
Allen looks for the source of these habits in relationships where the bonds of trust are most pronounced — friendship, brotherhood, sisterhood. Friends, brothers, and sisters do not always agree with each other. But they know that the preservation of their relationship is more important than winning any particular dispute. Friends are aware that their own self-interest involves sometimes giving up what they want for the sake of the other people who are important to them. Friends trust that such self-sacrifice will be reciprocated rather than unfairly exploited.
Allen, following Aristotle, urges us to "convey the wisdom of friendship into politics." This does not mean we have to like all of our fellow citizens, or even all of our fellow classmates. But it does mean we need to pay attention to their needs and interests, and to exhibit goodwill toward them. Successful community requires genuine concern for the good of others whom we do not know and with whom we have real differences and disagreements.
Let's be honest. It's not easy. But Allen encourages us to make a start by getting in the habit of asking ourselves, in our encounters with strangers, "Would I treat a friend this way?" If we take this question seriously — "Would I treat a friend this way?" — if we try to act as if strangers were our friends — talking to them as equals, treating them with respect, even being willing sometimes to put their interests ahead of our own — we will contribute to the production of mutual trust, we will be more likely to receive such treatment from strangers in return, and we will create communities of the sort in which we want to live.
How will we know if we are succeeding? Allen proposes that "the final test of whether we have managed to cultivate political friendship in our own communities is ... whether a stranger to our neighborhood, any stranger also willing to act like a political friend ... could land there and flourish in conjunction with us." This is a test we want to pass at Washington and Lee. It is a test we want to pass in Lexington, Virginia. And it is a test we want to pass throughout the United States.
Members of the Class of 2018, you've got this. You are prepared to be the engaged citizens that it is our mission to produce. You landed here as strangers. You have made friends. But just as importantly, Washington and Lee has helped you to cultivate "muscular habits of trust production." The Honor System has asked you to be trustworthy, and to trust others. The Speaking Tradition has encouraged you to acknowledge strangers as if they were friends. Liberal arts education has taught you to listen attentively, interpret judiciously, and reason persuasively.
We live in a world in which distrust has gone viral. Take the habits you have developed here at W&L and change the world, one small encounter at a time. Wherever you go, whomever you meet — whether in person or online — ask yourself: "Would I treat a fellow General this way?" Washington and Lee is an oasis of trust. Export it to your future communities by posing that question — "Would I treat a fellow General this way?" — and then act accordingly, as often as you can. You and all of your fellow citizens will be better for it.