Commencement 2011: Keynote Address
Remarks: Thomas F. Farrell II
Chairman, President & CEO
UVa – Wise Commencement Address
May 14, 2011
Chancellor Prior, Chairman Gott, colleagues and fellow members of the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty, administrators, ladies and gentlemen – and, above all, the graduating class of 2011, congratulations to all.
You honor me with this invitation to speak. I have greatly enjoyed my association with this College and admire what you contribute to the Commonwealth and this beautiful region. You do important work.
A couple of things at the outset:
To all the parents here today, I am one with you. I have been here. I know that special feeling of excitement and pride – as well as that most compelling emotion of all – relief. Relief that your child has achieved this enormously important milestone – and relief that you no longer have to foot the bills.
To the graduates, I say well done. You have achieved something vital and lasting. You made it to the finish line. You should feel good about yourselves.
One personal note for you and your families. Wherever you end up, wherever you work and live – never, ever forget where you came from. There is no place in this country or on this earth that has better, or more fundamentally sound personal values than those that are embodied in this University, this College and this region and that you learned from your family and friends and neighbors.
You have heard Thomas Wolfe’s famous line “You can never go home again”. Well, Thomas Wolfe was from North Carolina –not Virginia. I could not disagree more. You can always go home again and you should.
Now – in the tradition of all graduation ceremonies, the next dozen minutes or so – meaning, the time I will take to talk – will later occupy an everlasting – blank – in your memory.
So let me challenge that tendency by at least trying to say something worth remembering.
I am not going to talk about my business – energy. I talk about that enough. If you have paid your electric bill this month, you have made me – and others like me – a happy person.
I have a long speech about energy, by the way. It comes with a lot of details. Write to me and I will be happy to send it to you.
Its focus is that we will never get a useful and coherent energy policy in this country unless we can work through our differences and achieve a reasoned, balanced, informed outcome.
Its basic ideas are applicable to health care, foreign policy and public spending.
But that speech is for another day.
Today – instead – I would rather discuss something that many of us take for granted: citizenship.
Citizenship is actually very easy to take for granted. Citizenship in this country is a birthright. You come into this world with it fully intact.
Or, you can fulfill the legal requirements, and become a naturalized citizen – like my mother did.
Which means – since you had to take a test – that you probably know more about America than most Americans.
But what does citizenship constitute? Is there some positive model?
It is a fascinating question, because until Reconstruction, the Constitution was all but silent on the subject.
It is also a necessary question, because the quality of our citizenship determines the quality of the country we live in. That is what happens when you live in a democracy such as ours.
I have this topic on my mind because I spent a couple of days recently listening to some pretty thoughtful discussion about citizenship, thanks to my involvement with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Lucky for you, I took notes.
At the time, three people were being honored – specifically for the quality of their citizenship.
They were …
Sandra Day O’Connor, retired Justice of the United States Supreme Court and the first woman to sit on the nation’s highest court.
Gordon Wood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and widely regarded as the leading chronicler of the American Revolution and the early days of our Republic.
And Jim Lehrer, long-time host of PBS’s “News Hour” program and, more often than not, the man asked to moderate our presidential debates.
The three of them were asked, “Okay, so what makes for good citizenship.”
Professor Wood said, “You have to vote – that is the most basic level.”
Justice O’Connor quickly added – as she pulled the Constitution out of her purse – “Well, it actually helps to know something.”
A pretty good point.
She worries about the level of civic engagement and civic knowledge; that large numbers of people would be hard-pressed to explain our government and the way it works in any great detail.
Jim Lehrer, understandably enough, sees a decline in broadcast journalism, a lack of seriousness and even relevance, as well as a tendency toward entertainment over the objective presentation of the news.
At that point, I think I said, “Amen.”
All three of them agreed that the country was rich with contradictions and paradoxes.
We live in an era when more information is available to more people than ever before.
Yet, never has it seemed harder for the nation to get public issues resolved.
Lehrer suggested that individual citizens may have to work harder at being citizens, lest the country continue to fragment and divide.
I think he is right about that, too.
Unlike in many nations, there is no one ethnicity that binds us, and we stand near an all-time high number of citizens who were born in another country – about 13 percent. That creates its own set of challenges.
But it always has. Immigration has always defined us as a nation. Except for Native Americans, every one of us has an immigrant for an ancestor.
So, what does bind us?
The usual answer is a shared set of ideals. We believe that in America, anyone can work hard and get ahead, that there are fewer limits on human potential here than in any other country in the world; for that matter, in the history of the world.
This thought leads to the notion of American Exceptionalism – that Americans are exceptional. Not to play word games, but I would say it differently.
All Americans individually are not exceptional. But America, because of its governing philosophy and its culture is certainly exceptional – we as a Nation of people – with all of our faults – are different – we are uncommon – and we provide an example to the rest of humanity.
America is Exceptional and the world is better for it. Big words – but I believe them fervently.
As Americans, we are bound by a commitment to the tenets of freedom and liberty and the institutions that preserve them.
One problem here: Lately, we do not like these institutions so much.
There is a low level of confidence in government – which means, as a consequence, that we have a low level of confidence in our capacity to govern ourselves.
In a representative democracy, that can be a very big problem. It leads to public frustration and stagnation. People will say – as they often do – that the country is not headed in the right direction.
This is where you come in.
I agree with the idea that democracy is hard work.
I do not think, as citizens of this Republic, that we ought to take very much for granted at all.
It really is up to us.
It really is up to you.
The quality of our citizenship shapes our future – for better or for worse.
I also believe – and this is where I show my age – that as you grow older you get the sense that we are engaged in a grand relay race, that our standing as a nation will be determined by the skill with which we turn to the next runners – that is you – and hand off the baton.
So, let me give you a few thoughts about that.
We are living under a Constitution devised in 1787. It is the oldest such document to survive in the entire world.
And it still works. The American system is brilliant in many ways. It is built to accommodate diverse interests and diverse points of view. It embraces differing interests – and its balance of government power drives issues – usually – to moderation.
There is a reason for that. The people who wrote the Constitution did not see eye-to-eye. They embraced a variety of perspectives.
I like American history – in fact I love American history. I enjoy studying it – and I constantly do. I recommend it to you.
You learn, for example, that it is very hard to find that Alexander Hamilton and Mr. Jefferson were on the same page on almost any topic. Yet their grand compromise gave us a National Bank on the one hand – and a new national Capital City on the other.
Mr. Jefferson and John Adams were hardly ever on the same page at all, until later in life when they became very close.
Madison and Hamilton were on the same page for a while.
Then Madison went in a different direction.
What I am saying is this: That in order to get a workable Constitution devised, there were lots of necessary compromises. The Constitution of the United States, as one historian has put it, was devised for people of fundamentally differing views.
Good thing – because that seems to be one thing that we do very well in this country: disagree.
Fortunately, there was one working assumption adhered to by all of our Founders: A diverse, continental democracy would never succeed without an informed citizenry. All of the founders put great stock in education, none more so than Mr. Jefferson.
Jefferson profoundly believed in the potential of the people. He was willing to stake all on that one idea – all on one idea – that the people should remain sovereign.
But only so long as they were informed. We take that notion for granted – but 225 years ago – it was revolutionary.
I do not believe that Jefferson thought for a moment that our democracy could get along without a broad commitment to public education, and the University of Virginia and this College are testimony to his resolve.
But it was not just a belief in literacy and the need to understand science. He certainly understood the practical value of knowledge – but he was chiefly animated by the need to sustain our Republic.
He believed that education, leads to reason.
And with reason, you get progress.
Let us hear it for reason. Boy, do we need it now.
The variety and intensity of voices have grown – in less than a generation, exponentially.
Unfortunately, we have not seen a proportional increase in good sense.
The fulcrum in our system is persuasion. That is the pivot point of democracy. That is how you get a majority – or so goes the theory.
It is a theory I believe in by the way.
Everyone has an opinion, but nothing is more essential to our future than reasoned discourse and informed argument that lead to persuasion and progress – and what is now a dirty word – but is essential to democracy working – that word is – “Compromise”.
It is not an altogether new challenge.
Patrick O’Donovan was a newspaperman, not widely remembered today. He fought with the Irish Guards during World War II and became a foreign correspondent with the London Observer. In the 1960s, he wrote extensively about the United States of America.
He once wrote about our country that “the longer you contemplate it, the more it comes to resemble some vast, mad mansion.”
Looking back upon history, to the founding of our country, he said the revolutionaries were uniquely practical in their approach. They did not believe in the perfectibility of man and did not write the Constitution with that in mind.
Yet, while they disagreed profoundly among themselves, “with pain and muddle and ferocious controversy they achieved a consensus.”
We should do no less.
The time we take bellowing at each other – the time we take trying to lock down one point of view to the exclusion of all others – is time wasted.
It is time we do not have.
As you might expect I generally like to quote Mr. Jefferson, our first Rector, but let me lean on another Virginian – James Madison – to make my final point. This is okay – you can relax – because Madison was our second Rector.
“A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both,” he wrote. “A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”
Citizenship is the key. Informed, educated, knowledgeable citizenship.
Which is to say that “we” have to work at it. “We” have to work hard at it.
We have our differences.
We have to reason through them.
“Armed with the power knowledge gives,” as Madison said, you can help.
Join the conversation. Make a difference.
Take the knowledge you have acquired at the College and build upon it.
Make yourself an informed, active citizen.
Do it for the rest of your life. Starting here and starting now.
Do it for yourselves.
Do it for your families.
Do it for your country.
Thank you very much.