HENNY PENNY AND THE APOCALYPSE
1989 WFU Commencement
May 15, 1989
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
I choose for my text today a story read to you by your first teachers, your families. It is probably not a story you have studied at Wake Forest, but its lesson is fit for this day of commencing. I thus conclude your collegiate instruction with the tragic tale of Henny Penny.
The story, for those scholars ill studied in these classics, is this. Once upon a time, while Henny Penny is grazing beneath the oaks, an acorn falls and hits her on the head. Henny Penny concludes at once, “The sky is falling. I must go and tell the king.” Along the way, Henny Penny encounters other feathered friends, Cocky Locky, Goosey Lucy, Lucky Ducky, and others, and having heard her story, they, too, join her pilgrimage to tell the king that the end of the world is coming. Finally, this feathered flock meets the cunning Foxy Loxy. He offers to take them to the king, but there is first to be a stop at the fox’s den. There the story of Henny Penny reaches its tragic end. Those who believe the sky is falling because a single acorn fell end up as the fox family’s lunch. Beware, the story says, of the prophets of doom. Do not join their apocalyptic army. There was doom indeed, but not the doom foretold. The sky is still in place to this good day.
The world is, and has been always, populated with Henny Penny and her disciples and descendants. The world is facing an imminent catastrophe. The apocalyptic end is imminent. All we can do is share the tragic tale with our dominions and princes. Our fate is sealed. Our doom is certain.
I have heard many Henny Pennyists in my life. Two world wars blighted our planet in this century, leaving nothing but devastation in Europe and Asia. This was surely the falling of the sky. Yet we head into the new century, your century, with the world’s most vital economies flourishing in Europe and Asia. The nuclear age was ushered in, and we were told by Henny Penny that the bomb would bring the sky down upon us. But, ironically, some now believe that the nuclear age, with its balance of terror, has stabilized world relationships in an unanticipated way. Can it be that nuclear arms became an instrument of order in a vivid example of what Theodore H. White called “the law of unintended consequences”? Now we have our first superpower arms reduction treaty, and new international recognition that the spiraling arms race is a luxury which we cannot afford.
There was then, in the fifties and sixties, the threat of world communism. The system seemed so monolithic, so powerful and sinister, that the sky of freedom and democracy seemed sure to fall. Now there is Perestroika and Glasnost and cries of freedom across the communist world from the Soviet republics to China. Even so cold a cold warrior as Brezinski is proclaiming the end of communism as we knew and feared it.
The energy crises of the 1970s were another new apocalypse. Without petroleum we could not survive, and Henny Penny told us that our suppliers were uncertain and diminishing. The energy threat promised utter ruin to the world economy. Can it be already that we are awash in oil, some of it literally awash in Alaskan waters, and remarkably, a Wake Forest graduate, Stanley Pons, is claiming that the world’s energy future can be resolved in a bottle of water at room temperature?
I could continue this recital, but your president’s message is clear. The Henny Pennys of this world are certain at each crisis that our sky is falling. Our problems are unsolvable. The apocalypse is at hand. Yet the human record unfolds. We live to fight our woes on other fields on other days. The impossible becomes possible. The imagined becomes real. The hoped for becomes actual. In this history is your commencement charge.
I do not say that we should ignore Henny Penny and teachers of her stripe. Prophets of doom should be heard. But the apocalyptic message of despair and hopelessness should be measured against the other record which instructs us, as The Man of La Mancha said so compellingly from the stage of the Wake Forest university theater this spring, “to dream the impossible dream.”
There is a fine line to walk between a proper recognition of the problems that surround us, serious and profound though they may be, and our opportunities and responsibilities to make the world new and better. I do not counsel you to adopt the motto of the sundial which advised students on the campus of old Wake Forest “Count only the sunny hours.” Between naïve optimism and the apocalypticism of Henny Penny, there is due regard for the serious problems we confront and the responsibility we have for the furtherance and renewal of the human spirit.
Today we send you to the world — your intelligence, your energy, your values, your commitment pro humanitate. We send you in the certainty that you can by your wit and will keep our common sky from falling. You and your classmates will enter science, education, government, research, commerce, and the great professions. You will thus touch every segment and sector of life. If you accept the charge and challenge of your teachers and your school, you can move human destiny towards its fulfillment and away from despair. You are a great gift to the world which your families and your school today celebrate.
You, too, will face the threat of the apocalypse and Henny Penny will counsel you to despair. Whether it be AIDS, the greenhouse effect, terrorism, drugs, or the federal deficit, you will be told that the human race has been lost.
But today you enter that ultimately serious race, the human race. It is yours now not to study, but to run. It has hills to climb and dark valleys to cross. But there will also be glorious views and moments of triumph. You run this race not for yourself alone, but for humanity past and future. Upon your striving rests our hope that a world where the ancient enemies of mankind are outdistanced and vanquished. May you run with faith the course that is set before you.
As you run, do not stop for lunch in a fox’s den or heed those doomsayers whose message is that the race is over and lost. Prophets of such feather might turn out to be no more than a bunch of chickens!