Final Exercises 2008: Rawlings Speech

Hunter R. Rawlings III
Commencement Address, May 18, 2008

University of Virginia

President Casteen, Members of the Board of Visitors, Faculty and Staff, Friends and Family, and, above all, Members of the University of Virginia's Class of 2008!

It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to address you this morning in this magnificent setting of Thomas Jefferson's "Academical Village," a treasure of classical architecture lodged in the Piedmont of Virginia.

Looking directly at the statue of the Greek epic poet Homer, the fount of Western culture, and surrounded by classical columns, I cannot help feeling inspired while standing on this platform to address you. You, however, should be gripped with some trepidation: when Classicists are asked to deliver formal remarks on weighty occasions, the resulting declamations are often formidably expansive. At Gettysburg, for example, the primary speaker was NOT President Lincoln, but Edward Everett, a classicist and former President of Harvard University, renowned as the finest orator of the 19th century. Professor Everett delivered an elaborate and eloquent speech, lasting a full two hours. The homespun Abraham Lincoln, by contrast, confined himself to three minutes. Posterity remembers only one speech from that day, and it is not the two-hour classical masterpiece.

I am mindful of that fact. But I am also mindful of the fact that the audience at Gettysburg that day vastly preferred the classical oration to President Lincoln's speech. So if you wish to the know in advance the length of my remarks today, I can promise you that they are between three minutes and two hours.

It is my purpose today to remind us of what universities like this actually do, not at their periphery but at their center. By periphery, I mean the elements of the university most visible to the public such as athletic programs, rock concerts, and faceoffs with the state legislature.

By the center of the university, I mean its heart — both literally and figuratively. We are this morning at the heart of Mr. Jefferson's University. We are on the Lawn, where his academic and architectural conception was realized, and we are fortunate to be here.

What was the essence of that conception? It was the Enlightenment vision that human begins can, primarily through reason, understand and enhance the world around them. This vision ultimately takes its inheritance from the Greek conception of cosmos, the idea that man and woman can find order and even harmony in what often strikes us as the chaos and disorder in the world. We can do this only by learning, by disciplined and intelligent learning. This tradition began in a very important sense with the blind poet we see in front of us this morning, and it continues in places and on occasions like this one we share today.

I have been privileged this past semester to teach two courses as the University, one of which was an undergraduate seminar on the influence of the classics on the founders of the American Republic. In that class we read and talked about Jefferson's and Madison's and Adams's and Hamilton's use of the classics in shaping the United States of America. We did a good deal of thinking about founding ideas: those that led to the Declaration of Independence, to the Constitution, to the American guarantee of freedom of conscience, and those that led Mr. Jefferson to found the University of Virginia. To be able to teach such a course at this University is, of course, a phenomenal pleasure: your students walk past Jefferson's classical creation every day, and they have the privilege of listening to Professor of Art History Malcolm Bell, an expert on classical architecture, as he walks them around the Lawn explaining the ideas behind the design of each pavilion and of the Rotunda.

Professor Bell has recently found evidence to suggest that we should rethink somewhat the inspiration for Jefferson's conception of his Academical Village. It has long been known that the great Italian Renaissance master Palladio was a favorite model for Jeffersonian architecture. Whether at U.Va. or Monticello, one constantly hears "Palladian" for the style favored and developed by Jefferson into his distinctive American style. But Professor Bell's trained classical eye has discovered features, particularly in Pavilions V, VIII, and X, of another, much earlier master, the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio. In the first century B.C. Vitruvius wrote a work entitled The Ten Books on Architecture, which came to be known as THE authoritative text on classical architecture. Vitruvius' books identified the ideal proportions of the classical orders of architecture, in other words, they defined the grammar of design. We know that Jefferson owned Vitruvius' work. We also know that he asked Benjamin Latrobe, the principal architect of the new Capitol in Washington, D.C., to create drawings for the new structures on the Lawn. Professor Bell has found reason to think that an early drawing for Pavilion X, by an unknown architect, is the work of Latrobe. The drawing shows distinct Vitruvian features.

Inspired, then, by the Roman architect Vitruvius, as well as by the Italian Palladio, and aided by Benjamin Latrobe, Jefferson designed a series of secular temples connected by a Tuscan colonnade. We see order and symmetry, but also variation as we cast our eye up and down the Lawn. The Lawn is long and rectilinear, but also broken into three terraces descending from the Rotunda. The pavilions are balanced and harmonious, but each one is unique, paying tribute to the Greek orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The Rotunda stands as a monument not to Greek models, but to the Pantheon in Rome.

This artful plan symbolized Jefferson's conception of the curriculum. Ten different pavilions were to reflect ten separate disciplines or fields of knowledge. Separate, but linked architecturally and academically. The branches of learning were not hierarchical, but equal in weight and value, in dialogue with one another in order to fashion intellectual unity and the advancement of knowledge. Students were to be broadly educated and to grasp the relationships among subjects, not simply the subjects themselves. And the architecture was itself to be a central component in the curriculum: students were to study the classical orders as they went to and from class, thus learning in visible artistic form the ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as later Renaissance contributions.

In today's multipurpose, decentralized university, it is easy to lose sight of Jefferson's ideals, or to see them as dated or dead, no longer applicable to today's realities. After all, universities are supposed to cater to society with its multiple needs and demands: economic development, provision of health care, preparation of students for careers in the marketplace, and public entertainment. Furthermore, professionalized disciplines offer students what they need to know in depth, and their isolation from each other seems to make sense in the Information Age and the Internet Economy.

But I would argue that Jefferson's ideas still have plenty of life left in them. To deal with today's torrent of information, streaming constantly past us on the tube and the computer, we need to be able to discriminate between the facile and the serious, the spurious and the genuine, the superficial and the deep. We need citizens who have critical faculties honed in a number of disciplines, and the ability and interest to bring their knowledge to bear on the complexities of contemporary life. Otherwise, we will be defined by Google and Wikipedia, which are marvelous instruments, but which, untempered by the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, lead to multiple and hapless errors. We now have, in fact, a new term in English to identify a new intellectual hazard: "collateral misinformation." "When someone alters a Wikipedia article to win a specific argument, anyone who reads the false article before the 'error' is corrected suffers from collateral misinformation." I often think, by the way, that Jefferson would have loved Wikipedia for its democratic character, its empowerment of the individual, but if he had read some students' papers, he might have had second thoughts about letting such an instrument loose in the world, especially in his academic world.

Jefferson, and Madison too, believed that citizens have to know something, have to be educated in history, science, philosophy, and economics. They believed, not in information, but in hard-won and tested truths. Their own educations were firmly centered in the Classics. When Thomas Jefferson and James Madison went to college, Greek and Latin were the business of the university. The only way to get into William and Mary, which Jefferson attended, or the College of New Jersey, Madison's choice, was to pass a test in Latin and Greek. (Don't you think, by the way, that the modern admissions process would be a little more humane if we went back to that solid, straightforward system?). College students then spent much of their time in class improving their ancient languages and gaining some knowledge of ancient history. The texts they knew best were classical ones like Plutarch's Lives, Cicero's orations, and Livy's history of early Rome. They memorized their speeches, studied their philosophical and political ideas, and found inspiration in their achievements. Above all, they sought to RIVAL their place in history. It is no exaggeration to say that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison burned with the ambition to be the founders of a republic that would match those of classical antiquity in fame and duration. It is equally true that Jefferson believed his university would stand for centuries as a secular temple of learning to rival Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. Emulating serious historical leaders is not such a bad way to commit yourself to a career of public service. Who are the role models for the Class of 2008?

We study the past not to put it on a pedestal, but to understand who we are, to learn how we got here, and to improve upon the ideas of our predecessors. With the deluge of information that now assaults us every day on the web and other media, there is less time than ever for critical thinking about the ideas that matter. Every Tuesday and Thursday this past term my students grappled with difficult problems: Why was George Washington's favorite play Joseph Addison's drama about the Roman patriot Cato? What faults did James Madison find in ancient Greek federations that led him to design our federal government on contrary principles? What motivated Jefferson, relying upon his sound knowledge of ancient Greek, to compose his own version of the New Testament? By trying to answer these questions, my students came to their own conclusions, often thoughtful and original ones.

Through their reading, their debates and their conversations with professors like Malcolm Bell, these students came to appreciate the classical dynamic in the lives and careers of the Founders, and discovered its significance for their ideas and their actions. Now when these students walk around this Lawn, they see it with new eyes. When they read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, they read them from their own informed perspective. When they confront a controversy about the separation of church and state, they have some evidence to employ in forming their opinions. They are not content with internet answers to tough questions. Here, I submit, is the value of a liberal education: to see familiar things with new eyes, and to form judgments based upon hard-won knowledge.

So as you enjoy the ceremony on the Lawn today, and then walk to wherever you are going next, look again at each thing you see, look at it and think about what it means. At the far end, the Rotunda, modeled on the Pantheon in Rome. Descending the Lawn, the Tuscan colonnade, the Greek pavilions, the statues of Jefferson and Washington, and of the poet Homer, and finally, above and behind me, the inscription in ancient Greek on the frieze of Cabell Hall. Though it is a quotation from the Gospel of John, and though it dates, with Cabell Hall, to the early 20th century, it makes a fitting conclusion to my remarks this morning, and a fitting commencement for the Class of '08: "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

The truth is what you now commit yourselves to find, and I wish you Godspeed in finding it.