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1996: President Hearn

CHARGE TO THE GRADUATES

1996 WFU Commencement
May 20, 1996
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University

As a gift for ten years of service at Wake Forest, the Board of Trustees provided me a summer sabbatical. I was to go in the summer of 1994, but various duties prevented my absence at that time. A kind fate arranged the delay. In February 1995, I underwent heart surgery and my sabbatical last summer was, as the saying goes, “just what the doctor ordered.”

Being married to a Francophile, we rented a house in Provence, outside the village of Cabris. Hedges of fragrant rosemary and lavender linked the walkways and there were commanding views south to the Côte D’Azur. It was an ideal setting for rest, reflection, and reading. It was a time for healing in every sense of the word.

I went to Europe with a special interest in the future of the European Union and the Maastricht Treaty. Much has been written on this subject in the United States. After a century marked by conflict, Europe was headed toward economic alliances and, ultimately, at political union, some loose confederation of the states of Europe.

These developments involved another interest I had in how Europe was dealing with the topics of diversity and difference which have become vital in this country. In America, we have established ideas about diversity and tolerance. It is an article of our public faith that as people know each other’s customs, speak each other’s languages, understand each other’s beliefs and practices, there emerges mutual understanding which results in tolerance and respect.

Europe is the place where this ideal should be actually realized. Europeans have occupied confined geographical space together for centuries. They know each other well and often speak several of each other’s languages. There is much cultural as well as actual commerce. Now there was to be a common passport, no barriers at national borders and, in time, a single currency. In Europe, I would see the kind of tolerance the American faith predicts.

What we found as we traveled and visited with people in various countries was startling and surprising. There was general hostility toward the Maastricht Treaty and the ideal of union among the states of Europe. Moreover, there were constant reiterations of traditional ethnic, political, and nationalistic stereotypes. There was scant evidence of expanded appreciation of diversity or movement toward an ideal of universal tolerance. It was as if World War II had just ended.

The American notion about how mutual understanding and tolerance are related was repudiated everywhere in our travels. After a century of conflict, the other countries of Europe still fear German domination even if that control is reflected through the banks and currencies.

I came to a sad and disturbing conclusion. If we are to surpass the tragic legacy of war in Europe, something more than mere tolerance and mutual understanding will be required. To know and understand each other is not to respect, let alone love, our neighbors.

I should have known better, I suppose. After all, this horrid war in the Balkans, complete with instances of mass murder and genocide, is a war among those who have lived side by side for centuries. The Balkans represent another horrible instance of ethnic and religious hatred among people who are in every real sense neighbors, often even relatives. To know others, even to know them well, is not a sufficient condition to guarantee tolerance, let alone peace. Europe does not yield promise that our American hope for tolerance through understanding will be achieved. Something else is required.

I may have seen that something else everywhere I traveled. There is an emerging universal culture of the young. The young in Europe, dressed in cutoffs and tee shirts, were carrying book bags. They wore basketball sneakers and baseball hats, often turned around backward, with the logos of American universities and athletic teams. They were eating fast food and drinking Pepsi. They were, of course, always listening to rock music, turned up much too loud for my hearing. This culture of the young is everywhere in every country. It has no borders.

On a particular occasion, I was crossing a bridge near Casa Artom in Venince where a multi-national gathering of the young was occurring. They were, as the phrase goes, “hanging out.” Someone had a “boom box” going full blast. The students were dressed in the uniform of blue jeans and tee shirts. It suddenly struck me that I could close my eyes and be home on the campus at Wake Forest. In dress, in manner, and in entertainment, those young people from many nations in Venice resembled you.

You are the first generation whose culture is being shaped by mass media, especially television, which is beaming universal messages to every corner of the globe. With the coming of the Internet, the young, who seem to be marching to the beat of some new and distant drum, will have powerful new ways to communicate.

Something new, something worldwide, is being born. On a trip to Japan, I walked out of a lecture hall at a Japanese university during a time of festival when students were engaging in revelry. I recall then that the sound of music, the smell of beer, and the dress and manner of the students made that place in Japan seem like Wake Forest.

Vaclav Havel reported a similar observation. He noted that seeing and watching young people, he thought himself in his native Prague when he was, in fact, in Singapore.

We academics are inclined to believe that these tokens of the youth culture — rock music, blue jeans, fast food, movies, television — are exports of the American consumer culture at its worst. I have often wished that these were not the symbols of the United States. Perhaps we should look and think again. These products may be the conveyances of hidden meanings.

Last summer I experienced in Europe the older prevailing culture of the dying century with its mistrust and fear of the other. The nations of Europe, treat or not, have not forsaken the bitter legacy of violence. There is no peace for there is no love.

What I saw on the bridge in Venice and at Tokai University in Japan is something still to be manifest. It will be revealed in the new century, your century, when the world will learn whether the powerful forces of technology will ultimately be used to bless or curse humanity. Perhaps these new strings are evidences of something more than devices of American consumerism. Something new, something democratic, something worldwide, something loving and peaceful, is stirring.

I do not know the music and the poetry of this new era. But Bob Dylan comes to mind as a prophet of this new era. Your parents will remember this refrain:

How many deaths does it take
Til we know
That too many people have died?

How many times must the cannon ball fly
Before it is forever banned?

The answer my friend, is blowing in the
wind.
The answer is blowing in the wind.

Some prophet’s message is blowing in the wind. Perhaps human community and the will to peace may emerge from the youth of the world. May that be the still small voice blowing in the winds of change.

May God grant that resolve and commitment for the members of the class of 1996 as you leave here to accept responsibility for this dangerous world. Pro Humanitate is the motto given you this day with your diploma. Ed Wilson said during our recent trek to old Wake Forest: “At our (Wake Forest’s) best, we reached not outward for what the world might give us but inward for what we might find within ourselves to give the world.” May you find Pro Humanitate in your heart and give that ideal from your hands as an offering and blessing to the world.

The twentieth century did not fulfill this school’s noble ideal. Isaiah promised that a child would lead us. In the twenty-first century, may you, the young, and your brothers and sisters around the world, lead us into a new promised land where our spears shall be beat into pruning hooks and neither shall we know war anymore. God bless you all.