2022 Commencement Address

May 26, 2022

It is now my privilege to address the Class of 2022 on the occasion of your commencement. 

You are the only class of students currently at Washington and Lee to have enjoyed a single fully normal year on campus.  And you are the first graduating class since 2019 to enjoy a fully normal commencement.  In 2020, I stood here entirely alone, speaking into a camera.  In 2021, we gathered on Wilson Field, masked and distanced.  And today, we celebrate in traditional style on the front lawn.

When you arrived in August 2018, you did all the things generations of W&L students have done before you:  unpack your bags and boxes in the sweltering Virginia heat; bid emotional farewells to your parents, and your siblings, and your dogs; eagerly greet your new roommates; embark on adventures in the Appalachian mountains; pledge to uphold the Honor System. 

The night before your very first college classes, I addressed you in the Chapel right here behind me.  I made an observation, a prediction, a plea, and a promise.

I observed that although 90% of you were in the top 10% of your high school class, 90% of you would not graduate in the top 10% at W&L.  A number of you have told me you did not like hearing this.  But the final grades are in, and I was right.  I was a math major.  I also told you it would not matter.  That your education -- your learning, your experience, your achievements -- are not reducible to your GPA.  I hope you have come to realize that is right too.

I predicted, sitting in that Chapel full of 475 barely acquainted teenagers, that some of you will marry each other.  I confidently stand by that expectation, and this morning I reissue my warning to the parents:  be nice to each other, because you might be sitting next to your future in-laws.

I promised you that I would always keep my cell phone in my pocket, so I could greet you whenever our paths crossed on campus, which has been often.  The speaking tradition, simple but powerful, is a special element of our culture and I encourage everyone to join me in refusing to let technology get in the way of our personal connections.  Let’s continue to “say Hey” at Washington and Lee.

I pleaded with you, at the outset of your college journey, to get to know as many of your classmates as possible, and to explore the full breadth of our curriculum.  Never again will you be surrounded by so many interesting and capable peers, or such knowledgeable and dedicated teachers.  I hope you have taken full advantage of the extraordinary intellectual and personal diversity that make W&L such a rewarding place to live and learn.

In the four years between your arrival and your graduation today, the world has been decidedly abnormal.  It would be easy to give a “what did we learn from COVID” speech.  In fact, I drafted that speech.  Here’s what I think of that speech … [Tears Up Copy]

I don’t want to talk about COVID.  I want to reflect on what is “normal” here at Washington and Lee.

Normal should not be confused with boring.  Anyone who has spent time here knows that W&L crackles with the energy that only 2,000 young people can bring.  The variety and intensity of activity are astonishing.  Our campus never sleeps.  I know first-hand because my house is surrounded by Graham-Lees, Gaines, and Red Square. 

Neither is normal to be mistaken for ordinary.  Washington and Lee is distinctive.  I have already mentioned a few ways in which this is the case.  We speak to each other, and to guests and to strangers.  Visitors regularly remark that W&L is a notably welcoming community.  We also trust each other.  To tell the truth, to do our own work, and to be respectful, decent, and kind.

These features of our community are deeply ingrained.  They are typical, usual, expected, normal – so much so that we take them for granted.  But they cannot be taken for granted everywhere, which is why we prize Washington and Lee.

Of course, we are far from perfect.  None of us is friendly, candid, or generous of spirit all the time.  Wherever there are humans there is a gap between our ideals and our actions.

But one of the other normal features of W&L is that we “mind the gap” (as the British say).  If you have ever been to London, and taken the subway, or the “tube” as they call it, you will have noticed the iconic signs urging you to “mind the gap.”  They draw your attention to the space between the platform and the train, so as to avoid fatal and bloody missteps. 

Although we have no subway here in bucolic Lexington, we are in the habit of conscientiously minding the gap between our values and our lived reality, of taking note when we do not measure up to our own standards, of asking how we can do better.  It is normal at Washington and Lee to have clarity of purpose -- plainly expressed in our mission statement -- and to hold ourselves accountable -- in accordance with our motto, non incautus futuri, not unmindful of the future.  That combination gives us staying power -- 273 years and counting -- but without stasis.  We remain true to ourselves, but we evolve with the times, doing our best in every era to equip the rising generation of students to lead lives of consequence. 

Some of you seniors have taken my philosophy course, in which we explore the W&L mission statement.  You know I recommend keeping a framed copy by your bedside for easy reference.  A model of elegance, it reads:

“Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely, and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility.  Graduates will be prepared for lifelong learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.”

There is a lot packed into those two sentences.

For starters, note that it is all about you.  This institution exists for your benefit.  The entire university is devoted to helping students cultivate their potential.  It is a rare and remarkable privilege to live in a community so intentionally and wholeheartedly committed to your flourishing. 

The first sentence describes what happens here, during your precious years at W&L. 

You thought you were having fun.  Making your first friends on pre-O trips.  Practicing and competing with your teammates.  Singing, dancing, and acting.  Predicting Bernie Sanders would get the Democratic nomination at Mock Con.  (Not every W&L student gets it right every time.)  Lounging in the sun on front campus.  Hiking, climbing, and fishing.  Breaking it down at Fancy Dress.  You were having fun.  But at the same time, our faculty and staff were challenging you, mentoring you, and you were discovering yourselves, learning to make sense of the world, and becoming young adults increasingly capable of making meaningful differences.  Our legendary alumnus, Dick Duchossois, who passed away this year at the age of 100 and for whom our new athletic center is named, summed it up nicely:  “At Washington and Lee, without knowing it, you’re building a way of life.”

That’s the important business of education.  And it’s compatible with fun.  Indeed, the effort that it takes to accomplish important things is better sustained if you find joy in what you are doing.  You have experienced this at W&L:  rising to the challenge posed by difficult classes, difficult workouts, and difficult performances is easier when you take pleasure in your purpose, and when you surround yourselves with others who work, smile, and laugh right alongside you.

The second sentence of our mission statement pivots to what happens next:  the rest of your lives.

You have been prepared to learn, to lead, and to serve.  You may not have studied leadership or citizenship.  But if we have done our jobs, and you have done your jobs, you are ready to make significant contributions wherever you go, for the benefit of yourselves and your families, but also for the benefit of those less fortunate and the communities in which you live.  By investing in you, W&L has made a long-term investment in the public good.

Professional success is an important part of what we aim to make possible for our alumni. But it is only a part. We cultivate intellectual habits and skills, and core character traits, in preparation for leading lives of consequence. 

Today, right at this very moment, you seniors sit in the gap between the two sentences of our mission statement.  Mind the gap.  The Colonnade, the campus, and your time as students lie behind you.  Lexington, the highway that will carry you to the future, and the lives you will lead as graduates of Washington and Lee are in front. 

Your college education is complete, and from this day forward you are responsible for both the development of your own capacities and the deployment of your capacities in the service of meaningful goals.  You are responsible for the entire mission.

Take comfort in the fact that a liberal arts education is a formidable foundation on which to shoulder the load.  Your time at W&L has expanded your horizons -- it has illuminated paths you previously could not see -- it has sharpened your skills -- allowing you to follow those paths wherever they may lead -- and it has increased your flexibility -- giving you the confidence to change paths along the way.

Our mission statement does not tell you which paths to choose.  W&L is not in the business of determining what your business should be.  Whether you become an artist, accountant, banker, doctor, engineer, lawyer, journalist, minister, politician, scientist, teacher, writer, butcher, baker, candlestick maker or, heaven forbid, a philosopher like me, is up to you.

Liberal arts education is not job training.  But it is the best possible professional preparation, especially for a world in rapid flux.  The hunger for lifelong learning is the most valuable thing you can possess in the 21st century.  You will be surprised by how your lives unfold.  You will accomplish things you cannot even imagine.  At your 10th reunion you will swap tall tales of the good old days here in Lexington, and you will be astonished by the variety of things your classmates have done and become. 

I would lose my license to deliver commencement speeches if I did not conclude by offering you some advice.

First, stay curious.  Be that lifelong learner.

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 sustain your success in a world that is constantly changing. 

Second, keep striving.  Work hard in pursuit of your goals.

This will serve you well your whole life.  Apply it right now to your first job (if you have one), apply it to the search for your first job (if you’re looking for one), or apply it 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 don’t be afraid to change courses and to redefine what personal achievement means for you.

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 stay curious and you work hard, 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, lead, serve, and engage with your communities.  As our women’s basketball team likes to say, “strive together.”

Real leadership happens not when you seek out a fancy title, but when you accept an important role and you do it to the best of your ability.  It is oriented to serving the needs of the people who are impacted by your work.

Liberal arts education has furnished you with the habits of mind such leadership requires.  You have practiced inhabiting the perspectives of those who are different from yourself, evaluating complex problems from all angles, and presenting conclusions persuasively.  You have developed the stamina to work in solitude and the disposition to collaborate with others for the common good.

Liberal arts education cannot possibly prepare you in advance for everything you will encounter.  But it makes you the kind of person who responds well to encounters for which you are not prepared.  That ability, more than anything else, enhances your prospects for a lifetime of learning, achievement, leadership, service, and citizenship.

W&L has a very ambitious mission and I like it that way.  How well are we doing?  It depends on you.  How are you different as a result of your years at W&L?  No test administered today — don’t panic, there’s not one more test — could answer the question.  The Five Star Generals, who return to campus each fall, more than 50 years after their graduation, embody the lifelong impact of Washington and Lee.  That impact cannot be measured by comparing lifetime earnings to the cost of college.  The true value of the investments that you, and your parents, and our alumni have made in your education lies in the quality of the lives you will lead.

What you do with the opportunities you have been given is up to you.  Each of you will determine your own personal mission.  I hope you will find your calling and make it into your work.  Find a meaningful purpose that calls fully on your considerable talents, and you will enjoy the deep satisfaction that comes from applying your whole self to worthwhile challenges.  Do this in concert with others who share the pleasure you take in purposeful work.

What is normal here at W&L is actually extraordinary.  Which is why you are going to miss it.  Take it with you.  Take the memories with you, but also take the ethos.  Use the habits you have developed here at W&L to change the world, one small encounter at a time. 

I consider myself very lucky to have shared this place with you. I will miss you. We will all miss you. Please come back often and let us know how your journeys unfold. Congratulations and thank you.