Worrying for the Class of 2014

Reprinted by permission from the Richmond Times-Dispatch

LEXINGTON, Va. (May 30, 2014) — Washington and Lee's custom of having the university president deliver commencement remarks dates back to an episode in the previous century. The invited speaker, distinguished and elderly, approached the podium with a stack of index cards and proceeded to read through them not once, not twice, but three times. Ninety minutes later a new tradition was borne — the president would speak, the event would never again be so interminable, and the budget would benefit.

As a graduating senior, I liked hearing from the president. As a faculty member, I liked the brevity. Not until I actually had the responsibility of pulling some thoughts together did I harbor any doubts.

Having the president as the speaker is not the only way that we see commencement somewhat differently at Washington and Lee. We see it as time for celebration and reflection and not as our last shot to teach the graduates life's lessons and suddenly spring upon them the revelation that the world is a treacherous place and now they must go forth and cope.

Geopolitical strife, poverty, injustice, global climate change, human rights, cyber-security, and the 2014 Congressional election campaigns - all of this awaits them.

That's an important message. But we believe they know it. Our faculty has strived mightily to make those points. If we have not gotten through these last four years, it's too late on their final hours on the campus.

That is not to say there aren't final lessons to be learned. Nor is it to suggest that I don't worry for these students; I do.

What worries me, and about society in general, is their inability to slow down, to step back and to observe the world from afar.

In 1839, one of my predecessors, a man named George Ruffner, wrote a novel titled "Judith Bensadi" while president of Washington College. (He either had more time on his hands or was a better multitasker than I.) The novel features a passage about groups of college students who hiked to the top of House Mountain, a landmark near our campus in Lexington. Once there, they paused to look down upon the village. Their perspective, the students observed, "relieved the mind from the painful sublimity of the distant prospect and prepared us, after hours of delightful contemplation, to descend from our aerial height and return with gratified feelings to our college and our studies again."

Such "hours of delightful contemplation" are harder to come by these days. But this generation seems to lack the ability to take advantage of those rare moments when they do present themselves.

A couple of weeks ago, there was yet another poll that caused those of my generation to issue the usual laments about this generation. It turns out young men and women don't read for pleasure anymore.

Why is that a bad thing? For me, and I suspect many others, immersing myself in a novel has always allowed me to ascend a House Mountain and to look down. For instance, reading Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage" as a high school student in the 1960s gave me a perspective on war that helped me understand how kids from my neighborhood were feeling as they headed off to Vietnam. A few years later, during the Watergate era, I read Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and gained a perspective on political corruption that gave me a much deeper appreciation of why power corrupts and how our own constitutional order tries mightily to come to grips with a fundamental problem of human nature.

In these instances and others, choosing to read a work of fiction depicting another time and another place always has helped me understand the world in which I live.

So even when the members of this generation do find the time, they need to have the willingness and the means to see their world from a different perspective - whether through reading a novel or some other way of detaching from the world and taking a look from another angle.

Let me be clear: I am not talking about idle contemplation, or clearing their minds, or escaping from the world around them. I'm talking about engaging the issues even more deeply, but with the widened or adjusted angles that come from stepping away from it.

There are costs as well as benefits that come with our hyper-connected brave new, Twitter-based, Instagram-fixated, cell-phone obsessed, LinkedIn world. The quality of argumentation diminishes in direct proportion to the ease of transmitting opinions. The ability to persuade through reason and evidence diminishes in direct proportion to the convenience of reading and seeing only what we want to.

The world we live in grows ever more complex, yet our angle of perspective grows smaller and smaller and our vision shrinks accordingly — unless, that is, today's graduates are willing to allow themselves the time to scale a mountain now and again, and to widen their view.

Kenneth P. Ruscio has been president of Washington and Lee since 2006. This piece is based on his remarks at the university's 227th commencement exercises on May 22, 2014.