Advice for the Class of 2011 and Beyond

Reprinted from the Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 18, 2011

As the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" recede again, members of the Class of 2011 leave their campuses with all the advice they need.

Or maybe not.

In his novel "Nobody's Fool," Richard Russo describes one of his characters this way: "Clive, Sr., was not a profoundly stupid man, but he missed his fair share of what Miss Beryl referred to as life's nuances."

On commencement, I told the graduates of my own institution, Washington and Lee University, that I hope they will never be described that way. I hope they and members of the classes of 2011 everywhere will cultivate an appreciation for nuance.

When I was the graduates' age, I would run from the person who, burdened by years of experience, sees all kinds of trends in society that are cause for lament and who wants to tell others, especially young people, how things are going to hell in a handbasket. I would run from the person I am slowly becoming.

But I do worry about a society that takes seriously a potential presidential candidate whose position on China is simply two words, "our enemies"; whose strategy for energy is "to seize Iraq's oil fields."

And I worry about how we mistake information for knowledge and wisdom. I cannot easily sum up what we do at Washington and Lee, but one simple description is that we seek to move students up a ladder that begins with information, then up to knowledge and then, ultimately, wisdom.

That's becoming quite a challenge in a society that pushes people down the ladder. It is easy these days to get very good data in quantities undreamed of only a few short years ago, at speeds equally unimagined. But making sense of that information seems so much harder. The whole becomes subservient to the bits and pieces, the forest to the trees. Wisdom is not the same as more and better information, but we seem to think so.

And I worry about the depiction of science as merely another form of opinion. It is not. But what has made matters so confusing is that so many public-policy questions, which are debatable, involve scientific questions, which are also debatable, but in different ways. Global climate change and stem-cell research are only two examples.

That is why it is so important for everyone, not just scientists, to understand the meaning of empirically verified conclusions; and for everyone, not just moral philosophers, to acquire the capacity for ethical reasoning. Our public officials rarely understand science. But, to be fair, our scientists rarely understand that controversy in a political realm gets resolved differently than in a scientific arena. The problems of science and public policy are getting closer even as the people in each realm grow farther apart.

And I worry about the obsession of our political system with short-term fixes at a time when the problems are precisely the ones with the worst long-term consequences. More so than in the past, the consequences of what we do - whether it is in the environment or in our fiscal management - will have costs that are too easily imposed on future generations, while those making the decisions now find it so easy to save the benefits for themselves and for those who keep electing them.

There are days when I gaze with envy upon those who live huddled in a security blanket of their own certitude, who seem to have it all figured out, who can discern motives merely by looking at a person, and who therefore have no need to listen to or learn from others. But most days I realize how uninteresting a life like that would be, even if it would be easier, and how sad it would be to look upon all who disagree with you as morally obtuse or stupid.

Regrettably, such certitude is the predominant mode of public discourse these days. But the volume of an argument is no measure of its quality, and certitude is a poor proxy for rational thinking. If a previous time marked the loss of innocence, ours might well be marked by the loss of nuance.

This may not have been among the pearls of commencement advice distributed in recent weeks. But let's hope that, as they enter this world of moral complexity, the new graduates will search for nuance rather than simplicity.

Kenneth P. Ruscio is president of Washington and Lee University. This piece is based on remarks that he made at the university's Commencement exercises on May 26, 2011.