Final Exercises 2010: Casteen Speech

John T. Casteen III, U.Va. President
Commencement Address, May 23, 2010
University of Virginia

Thank you, Mr. Rector, and thank you ladies and gentlemen.

This is in a sense a daunting moment for me, because I am accustomed to sitting behind speakers and listening to what speakers say to our students at Final Exercises. Reflecting on what I might say that might be of some benefit to you today and going forth, I have realized that I really do need to talk directly to our graduates. I want to talk a bit about habits of the modern mind — how we think, how we convert ideas or thoughts to action. And I want to talk a bit about outcomes — where you go from here, what you do with regard to good and evil in the world, what you do to see to it that the places to which you go are better because of your presence there.

On the 20th of August, 2006, at six o'clock in the evening, at the University's first Exercise, the convocation welcoming new undergraduate students, what was then our entering class in the undergraduate schools gathered at the other end of the Lawn, and they sat through the gathering twilight facing north toward the Rotunda — the original library, the repository of knowledge, the place that this University's founder imagined as the University's heart and head. They did it to hear my words of welcome and to some extent caution, and to join the Honor System, and to become acquainted with one another as we began the academic year that for most of you who graduate today was the beginning of your time here.

Today, once again, on the occasion of these Final Exercises, you gather as a larger class, pulling together all of the graduates of all of the undergraduate and graduate schools, here on this end of the Lawn, but now you face the other way, you face south. The direction to which you face has been reconfigured since the University was designed. The building behind me in a sense doesn't belong there. You're supposed to be able to sit at this end of the Lawn and look out into the world, look to the places to which you will go after completing your studies. But also this end was conceived as the place to which the world would come in order to find its way into the University. Mr. Jefferson intended this end of the Lawn to be the open door. He saw this open door as an essential part of what he could leave to the Republic that he had helped to found.

In a sense this is a day of looking back on your time as a student here. I hope that it is for you a day of expressing gratitude to the persons who have made this day possible for you: parents, family members, teachers, mentors, close friends. This is also a day to celebrate you and your achievements.

During your time here, you have made your mark both as individual scholars — intellectual citizens in the making, if you will — and as a class. You have participated in discourse defined by academic rigor and by the decree that we will "follow truth wherever it may lead" and that we will "tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

You have wrestled with complexities and ambiguities. In the process, if you have been fortunate, perhaps you have also developed or discovered within yourself a measure of one element of the modern mind, one that became a part of the language of intellectual discourse in this country in the early 19th century, when as a very young man the English poet John Keats wrote to his brother and sister-in-law a letter that gave shape and substance to the modern mind. He described in that letter what he called "negative capability" — the capacity to live in a state of uncertainty, in a state in which not every incongruity is resolved, and yet despite the fact that all is not demonstrable, to live truth itself. In Keats' case, the truth was to become one of the great poets of our language. In your case, it may be many other things.

During your years here you have learned independence, you have lived a life of self-reliance. You have belonged to a unique culture defined by principles of honor, civility, mutual respect, and service to the common good. You do not leave this culture behind when you leave this place; you take it with you to the communities and careers you will enter after this day.

In thinking about this speech and thinking about you, I began thinking about two founding figures of our own American culture who also contributed first to our national narrative and then to the ways in which our minds work: Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each in his own way shaped our early Republic and helped define the American experience: Jefferson, as political leader, author of the Declaration of Independence and other documents on which we ground our concept of democracy, and father of this University; Emerson, as philosopher, essayist, great poet of Transcendentalism. Both men, in distinctive ways, set the mold for what it means to be an intellectual, to live the life of the mind, in America.

In August 1837, eleven years after Jefferson's death, Emerson spoke to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard on the topic, "The American Scholar." At that time, six decades after we had achieved our independence from England, America and its culture were still heavily influenced by Europe. Emerson and other thinkers were eager to break those bonds, to turn away from the Old World and to forge a new national identity. In his address, Emerson described a framework for building a distinctly American cultural identity. Oliver Wendell Homes later called the speech our "intellectual Declaration of Independence."

In the speech, Emerson encouraged American scholars to learn from the past through the study of great literature and art, but also to think independently to avoid becoming what he called a "parrot of other men's thinking." In the ultimate point of the speech, he encouraged scholars to convert their study into action. He said, "The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power." The statement echoes Jefferson's arguments that all science, all learning in the American university must be "useful" and that "knowledge is power." If we turn around Mr. Jefferson's argument, we may assert that learning becomes worthless when left unused, that knowledge not converted into action loses its power.

Now, this raises a question for those of you in this graduating class: What will you do with the knowledge you have acquired here? How will you act in the world? Will you use your learning? Will you derive power from your new knowledge? And if you do that, how will you use that power, and what difference will it make to the world in the generation for which you become responsible as you go from here today?

These questions occur within contexts, of course, and the contexts include the realities of good and evil. I'm using the terms here in the secular sense. They have to do with both personal and public concepts of good and evil. Just as our University has not been perfect in your time here, the world to which you go is flawed and, in some senses, corrupt. In many parts of the world, evil rules and visits destruction and inhuman conditions of life on those least deserving of it and least able to protect themselves from harm. Unjust war and civic unrest, political oppression and military atrocities, acts of senseless violence that dumbfound us with their cruelty and disregard for human life — these have been front-page stories for most of the last century, and longer. They are an element of the ambiguity that John Keats described as an element of the modern mind. Sometimes dishonesty is or seems to be rewarded, and integrity ignored.

And yet, goodness also has existed here in your time as a student, and it exists also in the world to which you go now. It exists, though, with the condition that good in the world to which you go is yours to foster, to create. You have the capacity and the obligation to fight evil and inequity. Albert Camus wrote that "The evil that is in the world almost always comes out of ignorance …" Knowledge, then, is evil's first enemy and good's first line of defense. The challenge, of course, is for you to use what you have learned here in the role of agent for good. You have presented yourselves today well-prepared to accept this challenge.

Consider these examples:

Carlos Cueto came from Cuba to the US in 2004 at age 19 with two goals: to learn English and to earn a college degree. He achieved his first goal in 15 months. He achieves his second goal today. Carlos will study law at Tulane University, and plans to become an international lawyer with the United Nations.

Savanna Kuisle and Diane West, both students in the Curry School's teacher-education program, will go to teaching jobs in Bangladesh after graduation.

Ben Chrisinger, an environmental sciences major in the College, has accepted a National Science Foundation fellowship to study the role of food systems in community development and urban revitalization. He will begin his research here while pursuing a master's degree in urban and environmental planning in the School of Architecture.

Madeleine Wright, a chemistry and art-history double major in the College, will work as a chemist in an explosives unit at the FBI Forensics Lab in Quantico.

Mary Nguyen, an AccessUVa student and leader of 'Hoos for Open Access, is earning degrees in biology and linguistics. She will pursue a master's degree in public policy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Erin Thompson, who receives her law degree today, will join a National Forest Service team that analyzes the potential environmental impact of proposed development projects on federal land.

These women and men, and many others here today, are converting learning into action. They are deploying the power of useful knowledge. We applaud them, and we applaud all of you who take your degrees today.

Earlier in these remarks, I mentioned John Keats. When Keats was 22 years-old — the age that many of you are today — he wrote a letter to John Hamilton Reynolds comparing human life to a "mansion of many apartments." He described the first room in this mansion as the "infant or thoughtless chamber," where we remain for as long as we do not think. When we begin to think and to consider the world around us, we enter the second "chamber of maiden-thought," where our understanding of the world sharpens, and we are intoxicated by the beauty around us — but also where we come to see that the world contains misery, pain, and heartbreak. Just as we acquire this knowledge of the world's disappointments and complexities, the second chamber goes dim, and on all sides, many doors swing open. These doors lead to dark, unexplored passageways. At this point of choice, we feel "the burden of the mystery," as Keats describes it. Here we must decide for ourselves whether or not to act — whether we will step out courageously to explore those dark passages. Keats believed that he himself was at this in-between moment of deciding what to do when he wrote the letter. Implicitly, he argued that the step out into the darkness, into unknowns, is the first step into the world where each person can discover, create, make, do — the place where good becomes possible because for the first time, we — you — must choose which way you go.

Like Keats at 22, you know now something of the world's beauty and also something of its evils. Now doorways are swinging open all around you, leading to unexplored passages. Opportunities abound, but you must act, and the first action is to choose your door and step boldly through it. My hope for you today and for all of your futures: May you enter your passageways with courage and optimism, and with confidence that your preparations have equipped you well for exploration and discovery. And then may you bring light where before you there was darkness, where before you there was only the possibility of good, and where from this day on life's choices are yours to make, to enact, to pursue.

Our role as your faculty has been to push you to be alert, eager, intellectually capable, and tested women and men. We know what you can do. We believe in you. We have had the responsibility to prepare you to take charge, to exercise every right and to fulfill every responsibility. We hope that we have taught you to flourish, to prosper.

My Betsy's contribution to the speech: Don't sweat the small stuff, as you go forth. Seek the company of women and men of vision, ambition, and worth. Test friendships on the basis of genuine human worth, not on what Jefferson called "artificial distinctions" among men, not titles, not birth, not accidents of wealth, not appearances. Find friends of substance and build your community within that world of substance. Make yourselves mentors. Take the responsibility of being guides and servants to the aspiring young women and men who stand behind you in life's line. Give them the step forward that your faculty have tried to give you.

What goes away as you leave this place, but comes back in memory and comes back in reality when you come back to visit here: the murmur that you hear in libraries or in study groups as people work together in the evening. The sounds of music. The sounds of people talking to their parents on cell phones as they walk through corridors or down the Lawn. The sound of ROTC units running past on their morning workouts. The sounds of the marching band practicing at Carr's Hill Field. The sounds of student life — sorority rush, being together in the groups that define the community of student existence. The sounds of carols sung right at the end of the semester, as you would rather go home, but then you hear that music and you stay a bit longer. The sounds of children on the Lawn during Halloween. The Chapel's bells. The cheers at games, no matter what the sport. And the name of Yeardley Love.