W&L President Ruscio's 2012 Commencement Address
Kenneth P. Ruscio
Washington and Lee University
May 24, 2012
We began the academic year at our Opening Convocation with a moving address by Professor Pam Simpson. Her friends, colleagues and many of her students knew at the time—because she had so courageously told us—that the cancer she was fighting was treatable but not curable; and even if we could not bring ourselves to admit it to each other, we understood this would be one of our last memories of a Washington and Lee legend.
In her address the art historian told us about the architecture of our campus buildings, especially those on the colonnade, how they came to be, and the battles over their preservation. Ever the teacher, Pam concluded by taking us into the deeper meaning of her story. “What,” she asked, “can we learn from all this?”
One lesson (she said) is that what we so value today came together over a period of several hundred years. Each generation built on the past. What resulted was not only a collection of historic, distinguished buildings (which we are now working hard to restore); we also ended up with a symbol. This is who we are. When we think of our most deeply held values— academic excellence, collegiality, civility, and most of all, honor, all of them are embodied here…White columns, worn steps, halls hallowed by time, and the strength embodied within them.
Just a few months later, another Washington and Lee legend also passed away. Severn Duvall had retired several years ago. He was not a familiar figure to this graduating class; but he was very familiar to those of us from an earlier time. Otherwise known as “dog Duvall,” either because of his ever-present Irish setter companion or because he dispensed the grade of D so freely in his English Literature classes, Severn was by any measure a presence. At his memorial service, which was a celebration more than a mournful occasion, a former student, Ben Hale, offered this tribute.
My memories of Severn the teacher are indistinguishable from my memories of Severn the man and Severn the friend. Our friendship spanned thirty years, and he never stopped teaching me. He taught me how to compost, how to cook rice, how to fix Swiss chard, and how to read a poem. He taught me to like pot cheese and liver and vodka on the rocks and Irish poetry. He taught me that Song of Myself is as holy a text as any book of the Bible, that there’s no reason to tolerate self-serving arguments or safe thinking or lazy writing. He taught me the difference between a wood cut and an engraving and an etching and made me think—again and again—about how I looked at pictures of every kind. He taught me the difference between a good poem and a poem that just feels good. Some of this happened in the seminar room, but much of it happened around his kitchen table or down in his cluttered study during commercials in the news (when talking was allowed).
But mostly Severn taught me what kind of man I ought to try to be. He could have taught me how to use a fish fork and a finger bowl—because he was very comfortable in polite society—but he taught me, more importantly, that being a gentleman has nothing to do with those things and everything to do with being gracious, even when—especially when—we have reason not to be. And he taught me that being gracious was about being fair and generous—not about mincing words or faking smiles.
I don’t exactly know why Pam and Severn came to mind as I thought about what to say to you as you leave Washington and Lee, but I suspect it had something to do with the way I feel about this class. It is customary at a time like this for someone like me to tell you that you are special, among the best to have ever walked these halls, and that by comparison those of us who preceded you were severely deficient and not nearly as good looking; and that despite all the turmoil in the world I am greatly reassured knowing that the future is in your hands.
In this case, though, I truly mean it. Except for the good-looking part.
I think of Woodie’s leadership of the IFC, Mackenzie’s guidance of Panhellenic, Scott’s oversight of the honor system, Matt’s direction of the Student Judicial Council (so precarious apparently that he required the 24 hour security of a guard dog named Lacrosse), Amber’s thoughtful comments at a Martin Luther King Day celebration, Chris and Brian capping off their swim careers with a NCAA post-graduate fellowship, Kat, Emily and Paige telling me about their experiences as student-athletes, the senior recitals in Wilson and Lenfest halls, Killeen’s Spanish journalism, Henri’s cabin in the woods, the look on Stephen’s face when he told us he had been chosen for the Teach for America program, Natalie’s comeback, the five sophomore friends of Kim and me who in the blink of an eye became the five senior friends and momentarily will become our five alumni friends, Trish, Zack, and Tucker and the entire Mock Con team—and the elephant that never was, Charlie and the spread offense, Tyler teaching English to children in China, Ryan going to Kazakhstan unless he becomes a Navy Seal, Dominika to Harvard, and Jasmine to Cambridge University. And many, many more.
All of you came to Washington and Lee in the fall of 2008. Lehman Brothers was still with us. A Republican president was about to enact the largest stimulus and bailout program this country had ever seen. Europe was considered a place of stability. China was an emerging country. Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House. Unemployment was 6%. There were no iPads. Blackberry’s were considered innovative. Our debt ceiling was a mere $10.6 trillion.
Things have changed the last four years and so have you. I’m not sure that the changes out there were for the better. I am sure that the changes within you were.
So it was my admiration for all of you that brought to mind my admiration of people like Pam and Severn and the many others following in their footsteps who sit over there to your right. And I realized once again that the defining quality of this University is the quality of its people; and that the character of this community and the character of the individuals who belong to it are mutually reinforcing.
We forget these days that institutions shape our values, whether intentionally or by default. At Washington and Lee we are intentional about it and our aspirations are high. We strive to create a community with certain patterns of interactions among the individuals who comprise it—patterns that teach us what we owe to each other; and patterns that influence the way you live your lives when you leave here.
Cooperation is an acquired skill. And so our students are entrusted with great responsibility for their own affairs. Civility is a virtue that must be cultivated. And so we can be oppressively persistent in our reminders to greet each other and extend uncommon courtesy to friends and strangers. Telling the truth is so much easier when there is a presumption that everyone else is telling the truth. We believe that a community based on trust is simply better than one based on self-interest. You are about to leave a community that takes such matters seriously and enter a society that does not. You can either surrender to the headwinds you will face, or you can, like many alumni before you, take strength from what this community has taught you.
I’m betting the headwinds will be no match for the moral disposition you acquired just by being here and associating with some of the finest people you will ever know. The bonds of friendship will endure for a lifetime; and the habit to show respect for others—for a habit is exactly what it has become–will prove durable even when it is not reciprocated.
But there’s another reason Pam, Severn, and all of you have been on my mind recently. Regrettably there is a great deal of noise in the national discussion of higher education, hand-wringing over the business model, concerns about student debt, the fascination with “disruptive innovation,” anxiety over the liberal arts as a luxury that can no longer be afforded, excitement over online learning, the possibility of three-year degrees, the worries over college completion rates, the panacea-like hope for collaboration among colleges—the list goes on.
In the midst of all the confusion, we have forgotten what a college is for. We would do well to remind ourselves that education, especially a liberal arts education like the one you had here, is one of relationships, of learning together what you cannot learn alone. Washington and Lee is not in the business of dispensing information. We are in the business of educating students, creating knowledge, and instilling within all of us, faculty and students alike, a capacity and thirst for wisdom.
Education—as opposed to job training or information sharing–has an element of surprise to it, the kind that Ben Hale found in his after-class friendship with a professor of English Literature. The lessons Severn taught him may have started with the study of literature, then bounced over to cooking Swiss chard, but ultimately it ended up on the much higher plane of how to live a life and how to treat others. Maybe there’s a way to monetize that, to find out if it is worth the cost; or maybe there’s a way to make that interaction more efficient; or maybe there’s a way to measure the outcomes with the total precision. Maybe.
But I don’t know how to measure the lesson that Pam Simpson taught all of us that memorable day last fall—a lesson that had nothing to do with architecture, or history, or even Washington and Lee but rather about the quality of human relationships and the importance of belonging to a community that could care about such things.
According to Andrew Delbanco, Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, once advised a group of students to come to college with one simple goal. “You want the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your lives.”
I echo her wish. I certainly hope you developed your mind during your time at Washington and Lee. But I wouldn’t stop there. I hope you have also developed your heart. I hope you have learned the importance of being in relationships with people who care about you; and that you retain throughout your lives the humility to learn from them.
With admiration and fondness for each and every one of you and with gratitude for spending the most important years of your life with us, I wish you the very best. Thank you.