2023 Commencement Address

May 25, 2023

It is a privilege to address the Class of 2023 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 to speak to you on this day, which marks your passage from students to graduates of W&L.

This is my seventh Commencement speech, and you would think by now I would know just what to say. But I don’t recycle my remarks from one year to the next. And as I sat down to write, I was feeling the pressure. What if I’m fresh out wisdom? So, I did what anyone struggling to produce a paper on a tight deadline would do in the year 2023. I asked ChatGPT to do it for me.

It opened with a warning: “the system is not intended to give advice.” Which is clearly a legal disclaimer to prevent getting sued in case your lives go badly because you allowed artificial intelligence to tell you what to do. But then the advice started flowing anyway. ChatGPT urges you to embrace your curiosity, be resilient, conduct yourselves with integrity, and treat others with respect. That actually sounds pretty good. I could say those things. In fact, I have said those things. ChatGPT just committed an honor violation. Not to mention the speech it gave me was only two pages long and it ended in the middle of an incomplete sentence. So, I’m going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.

One thing I can do that ChatGPT can’t is remember sitting, 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 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 certainly 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 would 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 reflecting on the times in which you’ve gone to college. They’ve been a little different. 

When you arrived in August 2019, you did all the things that 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, siblings, and dogs; eagerly greet your new roommates; embark on adventures in the Appalachian Mountains; pledge to uphold the Honor System. We had a great Fall Term.

And then things got complicated. In March 2020, Covid descended upon us, and you had to pack your bags and head home abruptly. The pandemic changed every aspect of our lives in previously unimaginable ways. Two months later — three years ago today, in fact — George Floyd was murdered, sparking protests and calls for racial reckoning across the country. In January 2021, the United States Capitol was stormed by Americans who refused to accept the results of the presidential election. And a year after that, Russia invaded Ukraine, reasserting claims to Soviet empire that we thought had been extinguished when I was your age.

That’s a lot of bad news. And it’s tough to look away. The issues are important, and the coverage of them is not only ubiquitous but also weirdly compelling. So much so that the term “doom scrolling,” which refers to the practice of compulsively consuming negative information, was named the word of the year in 2020. As Daniel Henninger has written in the Wall Street Journal, “on social media the sky is always falling somewhere.”

Let me interrupt this gloomy train of thought to bring you a public service announcement, in the form of the W&L mission statement. “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.”

The very purpose of this institution is to help you become capable people who lead lives of consequence. And you can’t be the kind of people that we are devoted to helping you become, or do the kinds of things that we are devoted to preparing you to do, without being well-informed about the world you inhabit, including its many serious problems. But there’s a difference between being well-informed, which you should be, and being sucked into a vortex of negativity, which you should avoid. Drowning in a sea of bad news isn’t good for you. It can make you anxious and depressed. It can exhaust your capacity for empathy and make you numb to the needs of others. And it doesn’t do the world any good. It produces a sense of resignation in the face of overwhelming challenges that inhibits us from taking action to make the world a better place. Moreover, when many people consume and recirculate news from the same sources, when negative stories go viral, it produces a kind of mental pandemic that makes some kinds of problems even worse.

Take the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. The chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Patrick McHenry, called it “the first Twitter-fueled bank run.” Bank runs happen when depositors become nervous that a bank does not have adequate cash on hand to satisfy the demand for withdrawals. When those nervous depositors withdraw their money, the bank’s liquid reserves dwindle, which erodes the confidence of more depositors. Demand for withdrawals accelerates, and if it exceeds the bank’s ability to respond, then the collective fear of the bank’s failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the bank actually fails.

Bank runs, and other forms of groupthink that do very real damage, are older than the internet. But social media enables information, misinformation, fear, and outrage to spread more quickly and widely than ever before. Daniel Henninger described the Silicon Valley Bank collapse as “a case study in the bad things we do to ourselves using the platforms, or trampolines, of social media.” He asked, rhetorically, “who knew that the madness of crowds would become everyday life in the 21st century?” And he offered a diagnosis: “the problem is the rise and spread of our own unmediated human credulousness on an unprecedented scale.” 

Unmediated human credulousness. Now that is a problem a philosopher like myself can love. It’s an epistemological problem. People are too quick to believe things, with terrible social and political consequences. And as Henninger rightly observed, “no piece of legislation … will solve human credulousness.” You can’t pass a law requiring people to get better at justifying their beliefs. Legislation is not the answer. The answer is education. Liberal arts education.

What is liberal arts education and how can it mitigate the problem of unmediated human credulousness? The term “liberal arts” is commonly used but rarely understood. I like to explain it by means of analogy to the martial arts. The martial arts are the disciplines that prepare you for war. The liberal arts are the disciplines that set you free. They liberate you from your own credulousness.

A good liberal arts education teaches you not to believe everything you read or hear. It teaches you to ask good questions, to make careful distinctions, to discern what is important, to sift the probable from the improbable. Those habits of mind enable you to distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy sources. Which is not the same thing as identifying sources that share your point of view. It involves gravitating to sources — representing many points of view — that provide accurate facts, apply cogent analysis, and draw justified conclusions. 

Armed with reliable information and the ability to think freely, critically, and humanely — which you have honed here at W&L — you are prepared to be conscientious interpreters of the world. Your education has prepared you to avoid a credulous rush to judgment based on the latest viral sensations on Twitter or Fizz. 

By disrupting unmediated credulousness, liberal arts education provides a powerful antidote to doom scrolling. It trains you not to mistake what is superficially interesting, scandalous, or trending for what is truly important. And it transforms anxiety, resignation, and despair into confidence, resolve, and hope. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is warranted optimism. Amanda Ripley, writing in the Washington Post, characterizes hope as “a cognitive skill, one that helps people reject the status quo and visualize a better way.” 

“If it were an equation,” she continues, “it would look something like: hope = goals + road map + willpower.” Hope is rooted in justified beliefs, about how the world actually is, about how it could be, and about what lies within our power to accomplish. Liberal arts education develops our capacity to form the justified beliefs that kindle hope, and in so doing it motivates, orients, and sustains our efforts to improve the world. It offers better living through epistemology. (I encourage the Philosophy Department to start printing T-shirts.)

Engaged citizenship — your citizenship — begins with the traits of intellect and character that are cultivated by a good liberal arts education. Your education has prepared you to assess what can be improved, and to have the courage to speak up about it. Don’t stop finding fault, placing blame, or pointing fingers. Figure out how to make things better. And figure out how you can make a difference. If something needs to be done, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Persuade others to join you. Responsible leadership — your leadership — is less about commanding those who answer to you, or criticizing those who don’t, than it is about exerting a positive influence, showing others by your own example what matters, and why, and what you can accomplish together.

We have high hopes for you. And because of you our hopes are high. Your families, your friends, your teachers, your coaches, and your mentors — we know how much you can do, and we are excited to see you do it. But we also know that you can’t do everything. You are talented, energetic, and ambitious. But no one can do everything. And no one should feel that he or she should. 

As you embark on this next phase of your life, find work that is meaningful to you and do it well. Get your foot inside a door that you want to enter 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, don’t be afraid to change course.

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 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 will lead. I don’t know where they will lead.  Neither does ChatGPT, which confesses, “as an AI language model … I can’t predict your future.” But that’s okay. Unpredictability is part of the fun. As your interests, projects, and commitments change over time, let what persists be your resolve to make a difference, and your confidence that the education you received here will see you through it all.

I look forward to seeing you at your 10th reunion and 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. Thank you.