Final Exercises 1999: Baker Speech

The Honorable Howard H. Baker
Commencement Address, May 23, 1999
University of Virginia

"What Will Be"

Thank you very much for the generosity and warmth of your introduction and may I express my appreciation to all of the officers, the faculty and students of this University for making it possible for me to be here today. This is the most important day of your lives thus far, and I congratulate you, those of you in the graduating class for your academic success. I commend the administration and faculty of this great University for educating you so splendidly. And I rejoice with your parents, in their newly found economic freedom.

Recognizing that I am all that stands between you and your diplomas, I promise first of all to follow Winston Churchill’s famous advice on public speaking: "Be sincere. Be brief. Be seated."

In thinking about these remarks, two books that I read recently came to mind — one about the past and the other about the future.

Robert Lacey’s The Year 1000 tells about life in England at the turn of the last millennium.

In those ancient days, life was different. It was a silent world, free of noise of machinery or media, and pungent with the aromas of nature. People worked hard, with their hands, and solved riddles for amusement. Theirs was a world of small villages and few people, and last names were just beginning to be used to distinguish one John or Elizabeth from another.

They spoke Englisc, a precursor to our own English language, which had already proven its remarkable adaptability, simplicity and poetry. And by the way, in this age of Jerry Springer, it is interesting to note that there were no curse words in Englisc. One could swear to something but not at something.

They put hot lances on sores, and they used leeches to draw disease from their bodies in deadly torrents of blood. And their scholarship consisted of copying the ancient texts of Greece and Rome. They clung to some of the pagan superstitions of their recent ancestors, but they had converted thoroughly to Christianity, and they kept faith with the one true church in Rome.

They knew they were living at the end of the first millennium, and this knowledge filled them with dread. This had nothing to do with the Y1K computer glitches. The people of the tenth-century "Engla-lond" were sure that the Devil was about to be released upon the earth after a thousand years of confinement, as the Bible’s Book of Revelations foretold.

They worried, more generally, about the future itself. A tenth-century Old English poem, by an author whose name has long disappeared, but entitled, "The Fortunes of Men,’ offers a variety of possible fates but leaves open the question of how each life will evolve. For the young men and women at the end of the 10th century, as of the 20th, the question of "what will be" dominated all others.

And just as the first millennium was about to pass, there appeared on the scene a remarkable invention. It was the abacus, the tenth century’s version of a computer, and it would change everything in the next thousand years.

The centrality of such ingenious tools to human progress is the thesis of another book that came to mind in preparation for today. It is a remarkable little volume called The Sun, The Genome and The Internet, in which the author, Freeman Dyson of Princeton, argues that three new practical tools will yield similarly extraordinary changes in the life you will live in the decades to come.

Dr. Dyson suggests that solar power perhaps will finally end our dependence on the thermodynamic cycle.

He predicts that the mapping of the human genome, now well underway, will yield medical knowledge and practices so sophisticated as to make our present-day surgeries seem as barbaric as leeching and hot lances seems to us today.

And he sees in the Internet the ultimate democracy of knowledge, spreading inexorably to the remotest village on Earth with stunning consequences for us all.

If what Dyson foresees is true, you may look back fifty years from now on your world of 1999 as impossibly quaint and primitive, at least technologically. But if he is wrong, you may long for the world you see around you on this golden Virginia morning.

What will be?

Will you save the world from environmental degradation, or will global warming wash you away?

Will you thrive in a professional world that rewards enterprise and courage, or will you be ground down in a working world that consumes all your time and steals your soul?

Will you live in a social world that truly values the content of one’s character over the color of one’s skin, or will you be mired in an unhappy world of grievances and anger?

Will you live in a political world that prizes civility and common achievement, or in a world where the quest for ideological purity or partisan advantage renders public service intolerable?

Will you live in a moral world that recognizes and honors clear standards of right or wrong, or in the swamp of situational ethics?

Or will you, like every generation before you, muddle through between these extremes as best you can.

The temptation will be strong in your lives, to be mesmerized by the extraordinary things that will happen to you in this external world.

And most of you, my friends, will live a very long time. If the demographers and scientists are right, many of you will live well past 100 years old.

In the span of my life, we have gone from Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic to putting men on the moon. We have gone from crude crystal radio sets to television and the Internet. We have gone from summers filled with fear of contracting polio to the eradication of that scourge and many other diseases from the face of the earth.

But your generation will do much more. You may ultimately consider space travel routine. Colonies on the moon are well within your reach. And there will be much more progress, many more practical tools in your time than in any generation before, more than you can even imagine.

But I would urge you not to neglect the internal life — the life of the mind, the heart, the soul — for this is the ultimate standard for measuring human progress. Each of you has an opportunity, I believe, a responsibility — to improve our culture, expand our knowledge, enrich our economy, strengthen our family, care for the outcast, comfort the afflicted, and fulfill the promise of humanity touched by divinity.

By these measures, we find ourselves today in some ways exactly where we were at the beginning of this century, if not at the beginning of this millennium. Now, as in the early 1900s, we are worried about Serbia. Now, as then, we are concerned about senseless acts of violence. Now, as with people in the English villages in the year 1000, we are helpless against the awesome forces of nature.

Progress is inevitable, but problems, particularly problems between people, can be stubborn and intractable things. On this wonderful spring day, you will be excused for only seeing blue skies and limitless possibilities. As it happens, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of my own graduation from the University of Tennessee, in the state next door.

And in those years, I (like you surely will) suffered defeat and frustration in generous measure before success began to smile on me. The world in which I lived experienced economic depression, a world war, a Cold War, racial hatred and violence, terrorism and all manner of evils on its way to prosperity, peace and social progress that by and large embraces you today.

In my lifetime, it often seemed as though the devil really was let loose on the world, and our job was to chain him up again.

But my point is this: hopeful as you are today, as full of promise and potential and learning and achievement as you are today, life has a way of mocking your hopes and frustrating your dreams. The secret to success in life is not giving up when this happens, as it inevitably will.

The great glory of the American people is not that we have prospered without challenge, but that we have prospered through challenge. That is your heritage, and this is the sturdy foundation on which you stand today.

You are promising young men and women who have made your parents, your siblings, your friends and even the faculty of this great university enormously proud of you.

An extraordinary new world beckons to you, and a few ancient miseries still beg for your relief. You are like Mr. Jefferson’s Corps of Discovery, a small intrepid band venturing into the unknown, as well prepared as you can be but with no reliable map to guide you through the undiscovered country that is the future.

Congratulations to all of you, and may you live a life of success and service and grace. Godspeed.