Washington and Lee University began the academic year last September at our opening convocation with a moving address by Pamela H. Simpson, a revered professor of art history. 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. She died the following month.
In her address that September day, professor Simpson told us about the architecture of our campus buildings, especially those on the historic Colonnade, how they came to be and the battles over their preservation. Ever the teacher, she concluded by taking us into the deeper meaning of her story:
“What can we learn from all this? One lesson 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, professor of English, had retired several years ago. 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, professor Duvall was, by any measure, a presence. At his memorial service, which was a celebration rather than a mournful occasion, a former student, Ben Hale, of the class of 1985, described the influence of this great teacher:
“My memories of Severn the teacher are indistinguishable from my memories of Severn the man and Severn the friend. Our friendship spanned 30 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. …
“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.”
So it was my admiration for today’s graduating class that brought to mind my admiration of people like professors Simpson and Duvall and the many other professors following in their footsteps. 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 compose 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 courtesies to friends and strangers. Telling the truth is so much easier when there is a presumption that everyone else is telling the truth, and so we believe that a community based on trust is simply better than one built 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 by being here and associating with some of the finest people you will ever know. The bonds of friendship will endure 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.
Regrettably, there is a great deal of noise in the national discussion of higher education today, 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, teachers 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 Duvall taught him may have started with the study of literature, then bounced over to cooking Swiss chard, but ultimately it ended 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 utmost 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, a professor at Columbia University, 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 life.”
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.