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W&L Professor Challenges Class of 2016 in Convocation Address

Addressing Washington and Lee University’s annual Fall Convocation, Arthur H. Goldsmith, the Jackson T. Stephens Professor of Economics, issued a sobering challenge to the entering Class of 2016, while also wishing them joy and satisfaction in their college careers.

His challenge: that no member of the class would engage in an act of violence, including sexual assault, during the four years at W&L.

The title of Goldsmith’s address was “Finding Your Path to a Life Well Lived,” and he began by referring to the upcoming year-long interdisciplinary seminar on happiness, “Questioning the Good Life,” that the University is sponsoring. Everyone, Goldsmith noted, “is jumping on the happiness bandwagon.”


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A conventional view in the field of happiness studies, he said, is that individuals all have a “happiness set point” established by genetics or personality. “Set-point advocates or theorists believe that following impactful events that advance or harm happiness, we tend to naturally gravitate back to our set point,” he said. “Thus, given enough time, those who were victims of traumatic events early in life should be just as happy later in life as they were prior to being victimized.”

Referring to research that he and colleague Tim Diette, assistant professor of economics at W&L, have recently done, Goldsmith argued this pattern does not hold in cases of “traumatic victimization,” and such events may have long-term effects on individuals’ happiness.

College-age students are at an especially critical juncture in this regard, Goldsmith noted. “In light of our findings indicating that exposure to violence — no matter when it occurs in the life cycle — damages mental health, happiness and life satisfaction, it is … clear that college-aged individuals everywhere have tremendous potential to harm others, derailing them as they are traveling their path to a good life.”

That data is what led Goldsmith to challenge the Class of 2016 “to do something historic and in line with the principles and values espoused by our community at Washington and Lee … I ask each of you to take a moment to reflect on why this is sensible to embrace, and then to pledge that you will never engage in an act of violence while at Washington and Lee.  In addition, I ask that you pledge that you will become an active bystander and will speak up or act if a troubling situation arises — no matter who the potential perpetrator might be.”

Aside from that challenge, Goldsmith told the students that the important decision they would make at Washington and Lee would be what path they choose to take. “The overriding question is, ‘What will you commit your energies and talents to?’ ” he said. “Many of the achievements and accomplishments you can visualize looking forward will entail extensive effort and absorption in the near term that will crowd out some simple pleasures. On a fundamental level, you will be asking yourself, what is the good life, and how do I derive it or position myself to experience this?”

He concluded with his wish for the students to flourish at Washington and Lee and to nurture “habits of mind and soul” that contribute to the sense that their lives are “fulfilling and meaningful.”

The convocation, forced indoors because of threatening weather, opened W&L’s 264th academic year and the 164th year of the School of Law. Classes in the Law School began on Aug. 27, while undergraduate classes begin Thursday, Sept. 6.

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
jhanna@wlu.edu
(540) 458-8459