Final Exercises 1993: Casteen Speech

John T. Casteen III, U.Va. President
Commencement Address, May 23, 1993
University of Virginia

About a month ago when I began thinking about this Finals address, I set myself the task of preparing a Finals address for a University of Virginia graduating class that would not include a single reference to Thomas Jefferson. I failed. So what I would like to do today is reflect on that failure by talking about the values, the issues, the challenges that are embodied in the kinds of education that have qualified you to sit today as members of this graduating class.

Let me begin with some observations about this occasion, and these are offered in no particular sequence. First, this final exercise celebrates individual accomplishments, but it also celebrates a common culture. The University’s culture is, in a sense, a piece of the main, but it is not a typical piece. Its origins and its history have made it different. Consciously or unconsciously, you who graduate today chose to join this culture when you came here. Leaving here today, you step toward an individual destiny that may include lifelong immersion in this culture and its values, but regardless and inevitably you move from this culture to one more of your own making.

This culture to which you have belonged here has its own standards, values, strengths, customs, and business-finished and unfinished. It does many things well and some things not so well. It is profoundly engaged — even in its cutting-edge science and its creative vitality, in its address to the social and moral imperatives of our time — profoundly engaged with the mind and soul of a peculiar genius.

Each of us has carried on here a series of dialogues — with professors, with fellow students, with the people of Charlottesville and Albemarle, and perhaps (if we have been wise and fortunate) with ourselves, with God, with our nation, with humankind. But each of us has also carried on a dialogue with Thomas Jefferson because the public dialogue here echoes the words that shape our national and global cultures, the words by which Thomas Jefferson communicated his dreams and his vision. And these words — these products of the work of his mind — gave shape to this state, to this nation, to this University, and indeed to republican government and individual liberty wherever and whenever they exist in our time.

This has been a year of complexities here, just as your time is an era of complexities in the world around us. This 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth (and the first complexity may well be that he chose not to celebrate his birthdays) has pricked conscience as none of the great commemorations of our era has — not the bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence in 1976, of the Constitution five years later, not the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage in 1492.

The celebration on April 13 saw persons all over the globe (here where it began and ended, in scores of places across this land, in Caracas and in Tokyo, and in Paris and in dozens of cities elsewhere) celebrate a vision — a vision of republican government, of a world ruled by reason, of individual liberty grounded in universal education conceived as the first and only completely legitimate function of government. In this era when violent antagonism — the antagonism of race against race, sex against sex, of ethnicity against ethnicity — so often threatens liberty, this brief celebration let us acknowledge other possibilities, including the Enlightenment’s confidence in humanity’s capacity for improvement through education.

It was in this year that William Rehnquist, the conservative chief justice of the United States, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the former communist and former president of the Soviet Union, stood together on this stage to acknowledge our common conviction in this era that Mr. Jefferson was right — and this was perhaps the most complex of all public events of our time.

It is in the nature of a culture to be fragile. Cultures come and cultures go, they change, they thrive or they falter, as people and times shape them; institutions endure as people determine to protect and to preserve them. Thomas Jefferson did not generally conceive his creations as permanent things. Indeed, he generally argued for transience (he wrote to John Adams that the people ought really to rise up and replace the government about once every twenty years) but he believed in transience because he believed something that most of us perhaps do not believe: that progress wrought by human effort is inevitably good. He believed in the people with an intensity and passion rarely if ever seen on our planet.

The institutions of Jefferson’s era and making do not necessarily survive today. The Virginia General Assembly and the United States Congress rejected most of his grand schemes to improve the lot of the common people, only to adopt them a century or so later in forms less coherent than his proposals. Slavery died, dogged as much by Thomas Jefferson’s own words (words that Julian Bond characterizes as being essential to any conception of human rights and liberties in any era), and it died as much dogged by those words as by any other force. It died notwithstanding Mr. Jefferson’s own failed struggle with it in his own life and household — a struggle discussed on this stage by Thurgood Marshall in an address to the graduating class of 1978 in the context of a letter in which Mr. Jefferson, as an old man, acknowledged that he had failed to eradicate the evil and added that the struggle was "for the young — for those who can follow it up, and bear it through to its consummation."

And yet from era to era this University has lived — built by human hands — many the hands of slaves, nurtured by human spirits (slave and free, black and white, learned and unlearned, women and men), a place built on common convictions about the value and inevitability of human freedom, and a place engaged in the grand struggle of ideas in which it has its origin.

This culture matters because above all it was and remains a creation of the mind and for the people. It was an invention of an imagination almost afire with dreams and aspirations. Mr. Jefferson first proposed it in 1779, but to a legislature that refused to make the education of Virginia’s people its business — a legislature that said that other things were more important. As President of the United States in the year 1806, he proposed it to the nation, and Congress too saw other things as more important. And yet he persevered, and he perfected his conception, and he argued his case to all who would listen, and committed his fragile resources in the years of his old age to a last great act of creation. And he left in his university and in the hundreds of colleges and universities created after in imitation of his model the institution that sustains year-in and year-out the system of self-government by free people. These institutions, the system of higher education in this country, are his legacy. They are his means to guarantee democracy’s creation, existence, and survival.

So what exists and what you share is a consequence of intellectual work, effort, struggle — Mr. Jefferson’s work; your work; that of Roy Willis, in 1962 the first African-American graduate of the College and the parent of twins who graduate today — reminders, if you will, of the accomplishment of the 25 percent or so of today’s students who are minority persons; that of the 200 women who became in 1970 as the first women enrolled as first-year students and thus began the historic change that now accounts for the 54 percent or so of our community who are women; and indeed also that of the members of your class who attend today’s ceremony in wheelchairs, and thus celebrate accomplishments beyond what most of us imagine.

Let us acknowledge also that this celebration embraces many who are not graduates today — family members, friends, others who have sacrificed; imagined futures for children lying asleep in cribs or making their first tentative steps into high school, and then worked to make this very personal, very human dream a reality.

So as you prepare to go, ponder this place, these precincts, these green spaces, these buildings, and make them symbols in your memory for other things. Ponder the courses taken, the faculty who taught them — each element devised to discover and teach what Mr. Jefferson called the useful sciences, what we now call the liberal arts as well as education for the professions, which is to say learning that sustains "the illimitable freedom of the human mind, [that] explores and exposes every subject susceptible of its contemplation" — a tradition of free inquiry whose sustenance becomes now your obligation as citizens. Ponder this invention intended to give people who would be free, the means to protect and sustain personal liberty.

And take at least these things: Take the idealism of this day and this place — this place where we were charged to "tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it;" this place "based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind;" this place that was "contemplate[d] as the future bulwark of the human mind in this hemisphere;" this place intended to "prove a blessing to my own State and not unuseful perhaps to some others;" this place devised for "those who are to come after us," and imagined as being "in its influence on their virtue, freedom, fame, and happiness….salutory and permanent."

Take with you a fierce optimism, fierce confidence in the people. Yet know that these are not the modes of our time. Mr. Jefferson would have despised our cynicism, our determination to debase the grand conceptions, to deny the inspiration of dreams (and John Kennedy and Dr. King and indeed Maya Angelou and our own Rita Dove would agree with him). Fight our complacency. And instead, take with you the high-mindedness of this conception — believe passionately in the rights of the people, in human liberty, in equity for all of humankind, in education as their surest protector.

Take with you a critical sense of how often we fail to achieve our dreams, and of how urgent is the necessity of struggling to give them life and mass. As surely as you remember and applaud what Mr. Jefferson did, remember also what he failed to do, and cultivate that in your souls as your obligation in behalf of human freedom. Remember the struggle he left to the young.

Take away courage, conviction, the will to use the powers of the mind to discover truth, to confront falsehood and evil, to assert what is true and good and to fight to make it real, to hold public officials to strict account, and to hold yourselves to strict account for your own use of the competencies and visions with which you now leave.

Take with you, nurture, act on the courage to believe, to dream, to speak out, to make what was not before, to commit yourselves and your fortunes to the common good.

Elizabeth Zintl and Thomas H. Jackson contributed to this speech.