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A Few Words at Commencement


Today the members of the Class of 2013 pass a milestone in their lives and in the lives of the families and friends gathered on this occasion.

We measure our lives by reference to points of passage: a birth, a move, a new school, a graduation, a romance, a wedding, a job, a promotion, an illness, a passing, another birth. Milestones matter. We mark them on our calendars. We celebrate their anniversaries. And for many of them we have rituals and ceremonies accompanied by peculiar forms of dress.

And we have words, usually too many words, nearly always predictable ones.

My words this morning are of the conventional variety, but they are few in number. For the next couple of moments, I invite the Class of 2013 to join me in some reflections on their recent experiences.

You have spent the last four years on a ridge between two mountain ranges, in buildings, old and new, that bear the names of those who gave service, support and supervision to this institution. Today you are sitting on the lawn of a majestic campus with beauty bestowed by the blessings of nature, the skill of builders and the generosity of benefactors.

That beauty is evident to everyone who passes. But your appreciation of this place runs deeper. For you, the campus is inseparable from the people you met, and lived with, and worked with, in these four years. People and place are interwoven in a tapestry of memories that enhances your response to both. And people matter more than place.

This morning you are close to your college friends, all the more so if you had the foresight to make your friendships in alphabetical order. Off to the side is the faculty, friends of a special kind. Washington and Lee has assembled an extraordinary group of teachers and scholars. They are the heart and soul of the university and it has been your privilege, and mine, to work with them in the last four years.

There are other people in the audience today you will remember. The security officer who gave you a second chance (or was it a third), the assistant coach who listened on the day you really needed someone to talk to, the IT tech who miraculously resurrected your dead hard drive, the cafe server who gave a cheerful greeting that somehow helped on the last day of exam week.

All around you there are people and places that mattered in your college career, but there is something else I want you to savor. Think briefly about the ideas you encountered at Washington and Lee.

Think about honor. You were introduced to the honor system one night during orientation in the chapel behind me. EC officers told you that at this place you could be kicked out of school for doing things that may have been commonplace in your earlier education. At many American high schools lying is another word for what happens when teenagers speak to adults; cheating is excused for stressed-out students managing busy lives; and stealing (at least the stealing of ideas) is why God and Al Gore invented the internet.

If you came from such a high school, you probably felt fear when you attended that orientation meeting in Lee Chapel. But the fear was short-lived. Academic integrity quickly became a habit and then an essential value you passed along to others. Students at Washington and Lee, generation after generation, create a campus where honesty is routinely practiced, frequently debated and deeply imbedded in shared experience.

Of course, our commitment to honesty requires us to acknowledge that we are not perfect. Far from it. Tragic transgressions of honor and decency occur among us and we have much to do on this campus to eliminate episodes of discrimination, disrespect, sexual violence and incidents of irresponsible consumption of alcohol. Your class, more than others, displayed leadership on these issues. This year, your elected judicial bodies made difficult decisions aimed at upholding high standards in every aspect of student life.

One final reflection. Take a moment to remember some of the other ideas you encountered at Washington and Lee. Not the ones you share with your classmates, but the ones unique to you. I don’t know what those ideas are, but you do. In these four years there were for each of you important moments in a book or an article you read, a play you saw, a speaker you heard, a discovery you made, a trip you took, or a community organization you served. Most of you can recall an exhilarating classroom discussion that spilled over into a hallway, a dormitory or an office hour conversation. Almost all of you, at some point, had a crucial encounter in a classroom or outside with an insight that became a pivot point for what you think, what you feel or what you plan to do next. Along with the people and the place, remember those ideas.

You have acquired a liberal education at Washington and Lee. That is a rare commodity. Its cost is high, its value hard to measure, and its perpetuation under assault in many forums in our society. Critics of higher education want us to spend less money and at the same time do a better job of making you into productive workers, conscientious citizens and ever more efficient consumers of electronic information.

But a liberal education is not training that prepares you for a specific workplace. It is not catechism, dictated by authority and learned by rote. It is not the accumulation of information delivered in lectures, laboratories, libraries and online lessons. It is not something you could easily acquire on your own, in front of a computer, or outside of a complicated community like this one. It takes a village; it takes a college; it takes spending time in the company of others committed to the serious and systematic exploration of ideas.

At its best, a liberal education is cultivated curiosity, tolerance for alternative points of view, humility in response to deeply challenging questions, ingenuity in making connections across disparate disciplines, and independence of thought anchored in an acquaintance with the enduring mysteries of the human condition.

Albert Einstein once observed that there is no need to go to college to learn facts; you can learn them from books. “The value of an education in a liberal arts college,” he said, “is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” As you leave Lexington take to heart Einstein’s expectation. Think boldly, think creatively, think for yourself and think beyond what you have learned at Washington and Lee.

Along with the people and the place, cherish the ideas you encountered in the last four years, cherish the ideals of a liberal education. And in the years ahead help us to keep those ideas and those ideals alive for future generations of W&L students.


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