Garry Trudeau urges graduates to ask impertinent questions

At Commencement ceremonies on May 19, Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, urged the 1,030 graduating seniors to ask impertinent as wll as pertinent questions.

He told graduates that the pertinent questions — which often have impertinent answers — are useful for separating the wheat from the chaff. But, “the impertinent question is the glory of human inquiry” and that its value is self-evident — it is the “core of our political and cultural character as people.”

Trudeau cautioned his audience that asking impertinent questions has inherent risks, and reminded them of the fate of the two engineers who protested the launch of the shuttle Challenger. But, Trudeau said, asking the impertinent question makes people self-aware rather than self-absorbed, and it is only by asking the impertinent question that anyone can choose between imperfect options. He told the graduates that if they had the courage to ask the impertinent questions, they would be able to “make decisions, take risks, and become good citizens in spite of yourselves.”

Trudeau ended his speech saying, “From those of us floundering about in the real world to those of you about to enter it, I say welcome. We need you.”

University President Thomas K. Hearn Jr. told the graduates that, thanks to the centrality of the liberal arts and sciences at Wake Forest, they have learned the rudiments of common grammar and vocabulary of a language that will take them through life. He said that the mastery of fundamental skills in basic disciplines is important and asked the graduates to thank the faculty who “have taught you their special languages.”

Before the bachelor’s degrees were awarded, President Hearn awarded five honorary degrees:

  • Historian John Hope Franklin received the Doctor of Humane Letters;
  • Robert T. Handy, scholar, writer, and Henry Sloan Coffin Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary, received the Doctor of Divinity;
  • scientist Ruth Patrick and Robert G. Petersdorf, vice chancellor for Health Science and the dean of the School of Medicine at the University of California at San Diego, received the Doctor of Science;
  • and Garry Trudeau received the Doctor of Letters.

As is traditional at Commencement, retiring faculty members on both the Reynolda and Hawthorne Campuses received citations recognizing their contributions and service to the University. Vice President for Health Affairs and Executive Dean of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine Richard Janeway presented a citation to Professor of Medicine Ross L. McLean. Provost Edwin G. Wilson (’43) presented a citation to Professor of Romance Languages Anne S. Tillett. Associate Professor of Pediatrics Alanson Hinman and Professor of Surgery Frank R. Johnston received their citations in absentia.

On Sunday, May 18, Robert T. Handy preached the baccalaureate sermon in Wait Chapel. He told his audience that they should “realize the power of words, savor them, use them thoughtfully and carefully, redeem them” rather than using them “as substitutes for action, as evasions of duty, as surrogates for making basic changes.”

Published in Wake Forest Magazine.