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Commencement Address

Remarks to the Class of 2009
Kenneth P. Ruscio
President, Washington and Lee University

At Washington and Lee, the president provides the commencement address, a custom I strongly endorsed until I actually had to write one.

We impose this duty on the president not because of some lofty principle, but rather to avoid a repeat of an occasion many years ago when an elderly speaker approached the podium with a stack of jumbled index cards, and held forth for quite some time as he went through them…not once, not twice, but three times.

The wise and fiscally prudent Board determined that in future years our graduates and families should rest easy knowing that if they had to endure a worthless Commencement address, it would at least be inexpensive.

But it would not guarantee full satisfaction.

Last year, a few days after commencement I received a charming hand-written two-page letter from the grandmother of one of our graduates. This is the abridged version.
“President Ruscio,” it began, “I wanted you to know the ceremony was beautiful and meaningful, a memorable event for everyone. However, it was very hot, especially for the graduates, and I have a few suggestions. You could build an awning to protect them from the sun.

“I understand, though, that may not be feasible, so I have a couple additional thoughts. Rather than having each graduate walk across the stage, they could stand as one and pick up their diplomas later. But that may go against your traditions of individual recognition. So my final suggestion is this: you could shorten your remarks.”

My theme last year was civility, and I was pleased that it took my correspondent two polite pages to get to her real reason for writing. Still, I have summarily rejected her first two suggestions. It remains to be seen how I will deal with her third—although I will say, for the record, that my remarks last year were not that long.

So in my final few minutes with you, I will speak directly, first with words of praise, then with a challenge.

You are an outstanding group of young men and women, among the best I have known. Your parents left you here four years ago with evident and justifiable pride in what you had already accomplished, and with hope and perhaps a touch of anxiety for what might lie ahead. You have fulfilled their hopes and eased their anxiety.

Think back to when you first met in Lee Chapel. You didn’t know it then, but you were among future winners of Fulbright Fellowships and classmates who would be honored with membership in Phi Beta Kappa and Omicron Delta Kappa. There was an editor of the Ring-tum Phi and a future EC president within your ranks, a few fraternity and sorority presidents, some who would venture into the community to address problems of poverty, others who would call attention to women’s issues here on campus.

The future 2009 ODAC men’s and women’s scholar-athletes of the year sat in the Chapel that day, alongside a young man who would become the national student chair of the NCAA Division III committee. Your musical, theatrical and artistic talents were not apparent to us then, but they certainly are now; and we have enjoyed your many creative contributions these last four years.

Each of you has achieved in ways you never imagined, perhaps by receiving a hoped-for but unexpected grade from a tough professor; or perhaps by just passing a course you feared would be your downfall. In countless ways, some known only to you alone and some well known to all of us, you have done well. You have every reason to be proud.

And just as you were unsure in the unfamiliar setting of Lee Chapel four years ago how success would reveal itself, so do you sit here today…not knowing precisely what the future holds but confident that among you are scientists who will make great discoveries…doctors who will save lives…attorneys who will represent individuals when they need it the most…politicians who will change the world…teachers who will change the lives of young people…and business leaders who will serve society with their innovative and ethical spirit.

Last month, I met with alumni from the Class of 1959, returning to campus for their fiftieth reunion. They had such dignity, such a sense of lives well lived, such admiration for each other and what they had accomplished.

They heard from former Senator John Warner, Class of 1949, here for his sixtieth reunion.

They also saw former W&L professor Bill Jenks, class of 1939, here for his seventieth reunion. There was a smaller turnout from Professor Jenks’s class, but he represented them well. His august presence alone sent the clear message that their legacy of excellence and honor is now yours and mine to uphold.

You will return here some day to meet as they did, and you will look back upon this graduation moment fondly. They fulfilled their promise, and you will just as surely fulfill yours.

Now for the challenge.

It is this college’s burden to offer not just a college education, but a particular kind of college education. We send you into the world with a keen intellect but also with a sensitivity to the demands of character. It is part of our institutional DNA.

George Washington was a man of strong intelligence. But the foundation of his greatness was judgment; and the foundation of his judgment was character.

We forget or at least understate his connection to this University.
His decision to donate his James River Canal stock to Liberty Hall Academy means, quite simply, that you are able to sit here today. By today’s standards that gift of about $20,000 worth of stock seems small. It wasn’t small then, and the endowment it established not only saved the institution but bolsters the University’s finances to this very day.

As the eminent historian Gordon Wood has explained, Washington’s decision to donate that stock provides one of the clearest glimpses into the heart of our first president. He was greatly conflicted when the company offered him the stock. Of course, he could not keep it for himself. Personal gain from serving the public good was outside the code of gentlemen. But neither was it gentlemanly to embarrass a sincerely motivated giver by refusing the gift.

Washington agonized over what to do. He wrote for advice to all his contemporaries: Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson among them. Gordon Wood notes wryly that it would have been comical were he not so serious. Washington wanted to avoid, in his own wonderful phrasing, an “ostentatious display of disinterestedness.” Wearing moral sensitivity on his sleeve was not part of his character.

We are the happy beneficiaries of his ethical dilemma, but the price we pay is the obligation to send graduates into the world fully aware that they, too, will faces lives of difficult moral choices.

So before handing you your diplomas let me make one last final calibration of your moral compasses.

This is the message. Do not enter this morally complex world with a simplistic moral approach.

That seems obvious, but it is more challenging than you imagine. Modern culture will tempt you to seek simple answers where there are none.

I worry a lot these days about the state of public discourse. It leaves a lot to be desired. We are apparently unable to disagree respectfully.

We mistake the harshness of one’s rhetoric for the depth of one’s convictions. Decibel levels do not correlate with the quality of one’s reasoning. Certitude is not the same as clarity; stridency is not the same as sincerity.

Yet we cede public platforms too often to those who are certain they have it all figured out and who seek to prevail rather than persuade. Their positions are reflexive impulses from political ideology, or mistakenly simplified religious doctrine, or fashionable academic theories. “Those who rest on such comfortable beds of dogma,” says Isaiah Berlin, “are victims of self-induced myopia, blinkers that may make for contentment, but not for understanding what it is to be human.”

It is intellectually lazy to seek the path of least complication; and one symptom of this laziness is, first, to caricature the positions of those who think differently…and then to personalize the disagreement by labeling those with whom you disagree as unreasonable, not rational and even morally deficient.

Viewing the world in shades only of black and white is a form of moral color-blindness, although it makes for an easy life. You won’t have to think as much or work as hard. You could, sadly, become the person depicted in Joseph O’Connor’s novel, Star of the Sea: “the kind of radical who is secretly relieved that injustices exist; morality being so easily attainable by saying you found them outrageous.”

Let me leave you with this image.

I have in mind a Washington and Lee graduate entering the arena of public debate. Off to one side is a cacophony of voices, loud and harsh. On the other side are the silent ones, wracked by self-doubt who avoid the great issues of our time. It would be easy to gravitate to one or the other. I wish for you a more difficult life, somewhere in the complicated center, where the courage of your convictions blends with humility and respect for others.

It will make for a challenging life, but a fulfilling and meaningful one for yourselves and for those whose lives you will surely touch.

You have the best wishes of the faculty, of the staff, and the 25,000 alumni whose ranks you will momentarily join. And you have my own sincere wishes for a life well-lived. With congratulations and appreciation I wish you the very best.