1999 WFU Commencement
May 17, 1999
Dr. Thomas K. Hearn, Jr.
President, Wake Forest University
Life is punctuated with singular moments yielding memories never to be lost. These moments and these memories define our individual lives and our common life as a people. Some such moments are tragic. None of us will ever forget the painful days following the tragedies that took Julie, Maia, and Graham from their rightful place in this assembly with you today.
The parents here will never forget where they were and what they were doing when news of the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. was delivered. Some of your grandparents will remember when Pearl Harbor was attacked, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt died at Warm Springs, and when World War II came at last to an end.
Other memories, like those of today, will be joyful. You will recall Cardinal Arinze and this glorious day when you return years hence to show Wake Forest to your own offspring. By then, these trees will have created an overarching canopy, and you will look back on this day and these years through the golden lens of memory.
We all face another defining common moment in the next few months — the turn of the millennial and centennial calendars. Some of you doubtless have already made plans where you will be and with whom you will spend this significant calendrical passage. It will be a never forgotten moment.
The turn of the year, the century, and the millennium is given ominous cultural significance by the now notorious Y2K problem. Apocalyptic fears — belief in the imminent end of the world — have historically been associated with divine interventions. But the Apocalypse being predicted this time derives from the fear in some minds, and the certainty in others, that the computers upon which we have come to depend will fail with calamitous results. Computer failure, not the wrath of God, may usher in the end of the age.
But there is an important and deep lesson in the Y2K problem. It has to do with the complex interactions between the social order and technologies. We naively assume that humans devise technologies to enable us to achieve aims of our own choosing. The Industrial Revolution leveraged human muscle, and now the Information Age is leveraging our intellect.
But the truth is much more complex and alarming. Technologies do enable us to achieve social purposes, but technologies in turn form us and all society in ways we seem unable to predict or control. We create technologies, and technologies in turn conform the world to their requirements. As the technologies become more pervasive and powerful, the shaping forces are ever more influential.
Television provides especially powerful illustrations of the ways in which technology shapes both private and public life to its own requirements. One of the social purposes envisioned by planners for television was to enhance the political process and to strengthen democratic institutions. Citizens could witness candidates and the improved coverage of public events and legislative assemblies would surely make us a better informed and more effective democratic society.
What happened, of course, was quite otherwise. To our surprise and dismay, television remade American politics according to its own requirements—not as an educational or political process, but as a form of entertainment. The entertainment ethos now rules American politics, the political process having been transformed by television in ways quite other than we planned. Politics now is regulated in all-important respects by the mass media.
Television and the mass media brought an end to the possibility of closed societies. As much as the force of money and arms, television brought down the Soviet Empire and ended a half-century of the Cold War. What those living behind that famous Iron Curtain saw on television was more powerful than state-sponsored propaganda and the empty promises of a bankrupt ideology.
We stand now on the cusp of a new century and a new millennium. We are being transformed again by powerful new technologies that will doubtless make and remake us and the world, in ways we cannot now foresee.
But the outlines of the moral requirements for the living in your world — the next world — are now clear. This world’s remarkable advances in transportation and communication have gathered the world’s tribes and peoples into inescapable relationships. There are no longer any regional conflicts. All wars are world wars.
Perhaps the gathering of the national communities of Europe is a metaphor for the future. The European Union with a single currency, the opening of borders, and the creation of new social and political institutions is a remarkable development considering the ancient history of quarrels among these neighbors. The European history my generation read was the story of one war followed by another, then another, seemingly without end. There is now real possibility that these nations will not take up arms against each other in your world. That is hopeful and promising, even revolutionary.
But there is, of course, another European story, a dark and ominous one. In the Balkans there dwell peoples with a horrific history of racial, ethnic and religious conflict. Again, the world has been drawn into war to intervene in these ancient disputes.
We spent this year thinking about globalization and diversity. In these two developments in Europe, we see starkly contrasted future possibilities—one of promise, one of peril. Indeed, the Balkan experience throws doubt upon that hopeful, perhaps utopian, American notion our year celebrated that if different people learn about each other, speak each others languages, then mutual understanding and tolerance will be an inevitable outcome. Much of the world’s experience contradicts this faith that familiarity breeds goodwill.
We must learn that tolerance is not a sufficient morality for a world made small. Mere respect for difference may be too modest a moral platform for the changed world you are about to inherit.
We may have had it wrong in this theme year. Instead of pondering globalization and diversity, perhaps we should have been reflecting on the opposite idea — globalization and unity. What are those fundamental human characteristics that make of us one people, brothers and sisters in the human family? The human genome project is another technology that will revolutionize your world. It has shown that, biologically considered, all humans are virtual clones of each other. Human unity and solidarity may provide the basis upon which we can build a global foundation more secure than mere toleration or acceptance.
As W. H. Auden anticipated the coming ruin of Europe in 1939, he wrote, “We must love one another or die.” I had always regarded this line as a typical piece of poetic hyperbole. Indifference would surely do towards those parts of the world we can safely ignore. Tolerance will surely suffice for those, different from ourselves, with whom we must somehow live. Love surely overstates the requirement for cohabitation on the planet.
But Auden saw this ancient religious lesson as a modern imperative for survival. For in a world community, there is no tribe or nation which is beyond the scope of universal interest and concern. The Internet knows no sense of place or space. A virtual world sits on our desks and in our laptops, and our cyber neighborhood is the universe. Most of us had never heard of Kosovo. But we are at war there.
The theme of each year’s message to the graduates is the University’s motto — Pro Humanitate. I marvel that the founders of a sectarian college in the then remote South, in an act of vision, gave Wake Forest an universal mission. Your education is not ultimately about your personal improvement. Having been given the opportunities which a Wake Forest education provides, you must accept the challenge to labor for the improvement of humanity — everywhere. Pro Humanitate must in fact unite with that ancient religious lesson — repeated by Auden — that we love each other as members of the human family under God.
In the next world, your century, service to humanity is no longer an ideal or a goal. Pro Humanitate is an ethical imperative.
The culture toward which we labor in common is a world culture. This next world is a world made safe for human and creature habitation, a world where differences are resolved through negotiation based on mutual respect — a world where the needs of the least among us are met by the efforts of all.
Such is the vision of the future embodied in our blessing upon you this day in this world. Go from this world and bring that next world to pass.