Change and Continuity
At Washington and Lee, we tell this old joke on ourselves: How many W&L alumni does it takes to change a light bulb? Five: one to change it and four to talk about how great the old bulb was.
Washington and Lee has a storied past. We stand on the shoulders of those who sacrificed on our behalf. We look upon the accumulated wisdom of the ages as a gift. We mostly avoid the conceit of thinking we are somehow wiser, smarter or more enlightened than those who preceded us. We preserve what matters in our history. And we learn from it.
But this is a university, not a museum, and while the past shapes an institution, the past does not, and should not, dictate the future.
Imagine a university as a river. A river has a source, its headwaters, typically in a remote mountain spring somewhere. That origin defines not just the natural history of the river but also its character and the way we think about it. At any point along the way, you can find signs of where it began. To understand a river you have to know where it came from.
But a river always flows forward, away from its source. It never reverses itself. Sometimes the river’s waters are placid and calm, the current barely perceptible. Sometimes they are treacherous, flowing violently over rocks and rapids. Sometimes the river floods its banks. Sometimes it is diminished by drought.
A river, like a university, moves along in its own varied rhythms, changing through different stages, linked forever to where it began, even as it heads toward a different destination.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the shadow of New York City, where a Washington and Lee alumnus named Walt Kingsbery lived down the street. When Mr. Kingsbery heard I was interested in applying to his alma mater, he did what any self-respecting alumnus does. His sales pitch was aggressive and irresistible. He sold me.
Mr. Kingsbery was a member of the Class of 1948 and when he returned for his 50th reunion, he found that, in many ways, the university he knew as a student no longer existed. The football team had played its last national bowl game — the Gator Bowl against Wyoming — in 1951, and shortly thereafter abandoned scholarship sports in the wake of a cheating scandal. The dress code — coats and ties every day and in every place — was long gone; so were Saturday morning classes. The student body had been integrated in the 1960s, and half of the students were now women since the university became coeducational in the 1980s. The law school had moved, there was a performing arts center, a new library, and, well, you get the picture — the river had been rolling along.
But even with all the changes that greeted his return, Mr. Kingsbery knew that what mattered was unchanged. Here’s how he described what he found:
"I will never forget my first sight [in September 1944] of the red buildings and white columns perched on a ridge overlooking the town streets. In May 1998 [I returned] to Lexington for my 50th Class Reunion. Those red and white buildings still stand as firm, silent and impressive as ever. 'Old George', the statue of George Washington, tall and silent, gazing over the campus and the town, was then, and even now, a bit awesome. But the buildings and 'George' offered a strong and warm welcome to a world of learning, friendship and integrity."
I know how you graduates feel today, or I know how you should feel or how I want you to feel. With your departure today, you are certain that your university will shortly begin an inevitable decline away from perfection.
However, as your life goes on, as you assume the duties of citizenship in this democracy, as you contribute to your communities and professions, I wish for you the quality of discernment — the ability to distinguish between what is important and what is not; to distinguish between what is real and what is artifice.
Judging wisely and carefully has always been in short supply. With the steep decline in public discourse these days, it seems on the verge of extinction.
Celebrity is not leadership. The volume of an argument is not a measure of its quality. Repeating a false statement over and over again does not eventually make it true. Sticking with an opinion in the face of contradictory evidence is not principled conviction but intellectual laziness.
Cultivate that quality of discernment in every corner of your lives.
Change is inevitable. Light bulbs burn out. This will be a different place — a better place — 50 years from now. Or if it’s not, you, as alumni, should be ashamed of it and of yourselves. What truly matters are the intangible attributes — the virtues of honor and integrity, of respect for each other despite our differences, of civility. Pay attention to the character, not the artifice.
To move forward, to improve, to change, is not a rejection of the past. It is the way to honor the past.
This piece is based on remarks that Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio, a 1976 graduate of W&L, made during the university’s commencement exercises on May 28, 2015.