1992 WFU Commencement
May 18, 1992
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
Each year I give this charge to the graduates, and each year the subject of these remarks comes to me as a gift. Sometime in the year, something happens or I have an experience that forms itself into these remarks. This year was different. As Commencement approached, I had been given no subject, and so I had the unfamiliar job of searching for a theme.
My first thought was to talk about the year of reorientation in which I have been involved. I will soon have been here as President nine years, and I have spent this year doing again the things I did when I came in 1983. I have been in every building on this campus and met with many of you on both campuses. I need to thank all of you who have made this year possible and pleasurable — students, faculty and staff. Since this is our largest academic gathering and since this year is at a close, it seemed appropriate that I would report to you on it. However, I am just now beginning to gather my impressions, and sadly, you students are about to leave Wake Forest.
I can say that my study has reaffirmed my belief that Wake Forest is a good place and is gaining new strength. Education thrives here. Our students are fair-minded and intelligent. Our faculty are well-prepared and devoted. Our administrative staff is hardworking and loyal. In short, we have good students, good faculty, and you graduates have seen dramatic improvements in our facilities and our environment. This year will help us prepare for the future, but that report will reach you as alumni sometime next year. So I cast that topic out.
My next notion was to talk about the presidential election. Wake Forest hosted the debate of ’88. You undergraduates were freshmen, and you saw how the media have come to rule American politics. Yet what should I say about the election? (All I want is for it to be over.) I find it an odd time in American life. Never perhaps has our nation been stronger in our role as the world’s representative of democratic values. The cold war is over. Communism is dead. Our nation is the envy of the world. Yet not since the Vietnam era have our people felt so angry about the nation and its leaders. Even this recession is mild by historical standards, and the absence of inflation helps the least advantaged most of all. This should be a time for an American celebration. Our nation’s promise is bright. Why isn’t that promise, rather than our national anger, the theme of this election? I do not know, so I cannot speak to you of it.
I have spoken to recent classes about the extraordinary developments in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The world has been remade while you have been students at Wake Forest, but what began as a process of enormous opportunity and hope for the world now seems fraught with danger and discord. With the disappearance of Soviet authority, ancient tribal and ethnic hatreds are being resurrected. Freedom has brought less opportunity than chaos. Is freedom that results in anarchy worse than Soviet tyranny? Is that the awful experiment underway in Eastern Europe? The question frightens me. If people who look alike, speak each other’s language, and have lived together for decades, if not centuries, cannot overcome tribalism and hate, what hope is there for the world? I cannot say.
One of the most vivid images I have of the birth of freedom in the former Soviet Union is the toppling of the statues of Karl Marx, the philosopher architect of Communism. His motto, “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” set off a worldwide revolution. No movement of thought of such consequence fails to contain lessons of permanence and importance. The latest joke about the American university is that the difference between the universities in the Soviet Union and those here is that American professors still take Karl Marx seriously. Perhaps we are wise to do so. I think, for example, of Karl Marx’s doctrine that society is fundamentally divided according to economic class. We might do well to examine ourselves in Marxist terms, but Marx is not a fit subject for this glad occasion.
Then just weeks ago, I thought I had been given my topic. NASA’s COBE satellite discovered what is believed to be conclusive evidence that the universe began in an explosion popularly known as the “Big Bang.” Someone exultantly called it the most important scientific discovery of all time. The satellite detected the oldest and most distant objects ever witnessed, cosmic clouds some 15 billion light years from earth. Those structures were formed only a scant 300,000 years after the moment that the universe came into being. Now we know how the structure of the cosmos was formed. If it is the most important scientific discovery of your lifetime, then surely I should say something about it.
But what could I say? I am a philosopher and not a scientist. As I reflect on the Big Bang theory and the structure of the expanding universe that it describes, my imagination falters and fractures. I have one of two radically different reactions, the same reactions I have almost every time that I look up into the heavens on a bright and starry night. On the other hand, the universe seems so infinite and vast that it is impossible that my life and my destiny should matter in so great a scheme. Yet, I have an equal and opposite reaction, that the mind which can contemplate this awesome universe is as wondrous a thing as the universe itself. I hear the words of the politically incorrect Psalmist in my ear, “What is man that Thou are mindful of him?” So I could not talk about the Big Bang theory. I do not understand it, and my emotional and intellectual reactions to the contemplation of the universe are contradictory. I should not leave you graduates with my own personal quandary.
Yet another promising subject appeared. It grew up on the border of our campus as a group of students and staff joined hands and hearts to build a home for Habitat for Humanity. It was a wonderful evidence of the goodness and goodwill of our students and staff. It brought us together as only a large and important project can. Some of us gave our money, and some of us gave our labor.
Even as that home was being finished and moved to its neighborhood, the Rodney King acquittal sent parts of Los Angeles and other cities up in flames. We were reminded vividly that there is a third world society right in the heart of every urban center in this country — where every measure of public well-being is comparable to the least developed places in the world. In the midst of this national agony, I found it reassuring that even as homes burned and as lives and hopes were lost, some here at Wake Forest were building one house. Oh, I know that one family’s shelter is a small thing, but as the motto of the Christopher Society says, “It is better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” I wondered why human anger is destructive. Why when we are made, do we strike out to destroy? Why can’t anger make us committed to removal of the sources of our anger? Why do we destroy? I wanted to speak about that, but I could not. I do not know the answer.
Toward the end of this semester, I gave a reading of poetry of Robert Frost. The reading was respite for me because it required — in a hectic season — that I sit down for a night with this poet whose works have been a companion of my years. There in a poem I found the gift of my topic for this occasion. There was a poem about how life’s lessons come when we least expect or seek them, a lesson learned from the wandering flight of a butterfly. In the midst of menial and manual labor in the work of everyday, the poet says, “I thought of questions that have no reply, / and would have turned and tossed the grass to dry.” There was given my questions and wonderings, some, as the poem says, without reply. Hard and disturbing questions that cause our minds to worry and wonder at the mysteries and complexities which surround us are at the center of life.
Not all questions have answers, and no important question has an easy answer. In the knowing of our ignorance, there is the wisdom of Socrates. If we have taught you well, your days will contain moments of contemplation about nature and nature’s god, human nature and its destiny, and even the structure of the cosmos itself. The nature of education is not so much to know as to be a seeker after truth.
In your life, you will learn to respect, I hope, the majesty of human achievement. To think the thought of the collective mind of our heritage is to know how splendid human achievement at its best can be. We create objects, of mind and of hand, of exquisite beauty. Sometimes that beauty is truth. Sometimes it is not. To know the difference makes all the difference.
You will encounter the mysteries of good and evil, achievement and despair, faith and doubt. The world’s story is told in both tragedy and comedy. Not all our endings are happy, but some are wonderful indeed. Nature and nature’s god have minds of their own which we approach with reverence and awe.
Above all, you must see yourself a partner in this enterprise of being human. It is a task transcending the generations. In the work of humanity, each must strive for a legacy that leads toward a fuller destiny for all. That destiny begins for you today.
The commitment of Wake Forest to our purpose for you and your purpose in the world is upon the seal of your diploma you will receive: Pro Humanitate. May it not merely adorn your wall. May that motto be sealed upon your mind and heart, and guide you in the exciting pilgrimage that lies ahead.