"Public Affairs, Public Policy
and American Society"
George F. Will's commencement address to Class of 2002
President Masters, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished
faculty, proud parents - proud, and somewhat lighter in the wallet parents - and especially members of the Class
of 2002. Make that: Fellow members of the Class of 2002.
I thank the college for the honor of allowing me to receive
with you, my fellow classmates, a degree today. I do not deserve this degree. But, then, I have an arthritic wrist,
and I do not deserve that either.
I, like all of you of the Class of 2002, am indebted to this fine college. For the last four years the college
has given you indispensable preparation for life. Almost seven decades ago, the college was indispensable in giving
me life: It was here that my mother and father first met.
Thiel succeeded in doing what college is supposed to do - it did not just educate my parents, it put them on the
path to a lifetime to learning. Indeed, my father became a college professor, so I became a faculty brat - and
a professor, briefly, before I turned to journalism. Or as my father felt, before I sank to journalism.
Your motive in inviting a columnist to address you on this happy occasion is mortifyingly transparent. This is
the last lecture you must endure on this campus, and you know that columnists, no matter what they say, must say
Well, brevity is not only the soul of wit and the essence of lingerie, it is plain politeness on occasions such
as this, when a speaker is the last impediment standing between you and the world which is to be your oyster. I
can be brief because I have but one point, a rhetorical style I learned from my model as a public speaker, the
late Conrad Hilton, founder of the worldwide hotel chain.
Hilton appeared once on the Tonight Show and was asked to tell the national television audience the one thing,
based on his life's work, that he would most like to tell America. Hilton turned to the camera, looked America
in the eye and said: "Please - put the curtain inside the tub."
It was not a deeply metaphysical point, but it was intensely practical - particularly if you own 200,000 bathtubs.
Being a hopelessly addicted baseball fan - I saw my first major league game in Pittsburgh's Forbes Field - I am
tempted to tell you that the most important rule in life is: With a runner on second and no one out, hit to the
right side, behind the runner.
Instead, I want to tell you why it is important - to me, to you and to your country - that, for the rest of your
lives, you continue doing something you have had to do here: continue to read. Here is why.
I am dismayed by the increasing thinness of the common cultural vocabulary that I can assume as I write for a mass
readership. Let me give some anecdotal evidence of the thinning of the common culture - bearing in mind that anecdotes
are only anecdotes, but that the plural of "anecdote" is "data."
In 1872 Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., took his family to Europe for an extended tour, during which his son Teddy did
what 14-year-olds often do: he had a growth spurt. He had to buy a new suit because his wrists and ankles protruded
comically from the suit he had brought from New York. Young Teddy said he and his family called this outgrown suit
of clothes "my 'Smike suit' because it left my wrists and ankles as bare as those of poor Smike himself."
Well, now. Smike was one of the forty urchins so badly treated by the loathsome Wackford Squeers at Dotheboys Hall,
the Yorkshire school that Dickens sketched so darkly in his novel Nicholas Nickleby.
What strikes me as a fascinating cultural datum is the fact that for 14-year-old Teddy and his family, this secondary
character from a Dickens novel - a novel published thirty-four years before the Roosevelts' European tour - was
so familiar to them. Smike was part of the shared vocabulary, the casual discourse of this family.
Obviously the Roosevelt family was not a typical American family. It was much better educated and more comfortably
situated than most families of that day - or of ours, for that matter. And TR had a prodigious appetite for books.
Early in 1910, while TR was on safari in the African bush, hunting big game, he put his knife through the brain
of a deadly puff adder, and then TR said, "I slipped it into my saddle pocket, where its blood stained the
pigskin cover of the little pocket 'Nibelungenleid' which that day I happened to carry." On the same trip
Roosevelt wrote of reading Poe while on the upper Nile.
So, let us stipulate that TR was an astonishing force of nature, and therefore is of limited use as a retrospective
But in 1910 Teddy Roosevelt was a former president, had been for two years, and was not happy in that status. The
political mores of that day required would-be candidates to manifest a certain diffidence, if not reluctance. But
TR was hoping to be enticed - only pro forma enticement would have been needed - to seek the 1912 Republican nomination,
in a contest with his former friend and protégé, the incumbent president, William Howard Taft.
During a trip to Boston, TR stayed at the home of a supporter. When journalists asked the supporter if TR would
be a candidate in 1912, the supporter answered simply: "Barkis is willin'." Barkis, my refreshed memory
tells me, was the carriage driver in David Copperfield, who relentlessly courted Clara Peggotty, Copperfield's
childhood nurse. Dickens' readers remembered Barkis for his reiteration of the phrase, "Barkis is willin'."
Surely it tells us something significant about America today that we do not converse the way people did in TR's
yesterday. But what is the significance of the fact that, in the tenth decade of this century, you are unlikely
to encounter the first decade - the easy, unaffected insertion of such literary references into the everyday conversations
between a political person and journalists?
Before attempting to answer that question, let me give one more example of interesting communication.
In June 1940, a British officer in the desperate circumstances of Dunkirk beach flashed to London a three-word
message: "But if not." What meaning, if any, would we find in such a - to us - opaque message?
"But if not." Far from seeming opaque in 1940, it was instantly recognized, as its sender assumed it
would be, as a Biblical quotation. It is from the Book of Daniel, from the passage in which Nebuchadnezzar commands
Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego to either worship the golden image or be thrust into the fiery furnace. The three
threatened men respond defiantly:
"...our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out
of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship
the golden image..."
This is, at least to me, an astonishing and deeply stirring episode. Here we have an officer, with his back to
the English Channel and his face to the Wehrmacht. In this extreme situation, he expresses his heroic defiance
with breathtaking elegance and economy. I especially stress, and envy, the economy. He distilled his situation
and moral stance into three words - three syllables, actually. In the cacophony of war, in the deadly confusion
of an evacuation under attack, he deftly plucked from the then-common culture - mind you, this was just 62 years
ago - an almost universally familiar fragment of a passage from a book. With the fragment he connected himself,
and his interlocutors, with a resonant story from the Western canon.
Such literary and historical allusions are not just pretty filigrees. They are practical necessities. They enable
us to make a large point with a small reference. They help us to save time and words by triggering a response from
the readership's reservoir of shared understandings. As that reservoir runs dry, writing - communicating - becomes
more difficult, more tedious, more labored, less efficient.
The various episodes I have cited give rise to three questions. Has something - something directly pertinent to
higher education - changed in a way that makes such dipping into a deep common culture less and less possible?
If so, does that matter? If it matters, what is to be done?
My answers to those questions are: Something has changed; the change is profoundly disturbing; and if Thiel and
places like it cannot do something about it, then we are all truly sunk.
Obviously something, or some set of things, has caused a thinning of the fabric of the common culture. The shared
stock of literary and historical knowledge - the furniture of the public mind, or at any rate the mind of the portion
of the public that is at least mildly interested in the national conversation about serious subjects - is not as
plentiful and sturdy as it used to be.
The reason why can be reduced to a word: reading. Reading matters less to people than it once did. People, especially
young people, do less of it than young people used to do. And people read less ardently, less passionately than
they did, say, around 1840, when Dickens was publishing The Old Curiosity Shop serially in newspapers. Some of
Dickens devoted readers in New York are said to have gone to the docks when transatlantic ships arrived with English
newspapers, anxiously shouting up to the crew members on deck, "Did Little Nell die?"
It is simply impossible to imagine a book - any book on any subject - having the impact that Harriet Beecher Stowe's
Uncle Tom's Cabin had when published in 1852. Stowe's novel sold 300,000 copies in the United States alone in the
first year of its publication. Relative to population, this is comparable to selling more than three million copies
in a year today. And the literate population was much smaller then. Within a decade it sold more than two million
copies in the United States. It is to this day the best selling book of all time in proportion to population. Because
opinion drives events in a democracy, her book was a precipitant of the Civil War.
Ours is increasingly an electronic culture that lacks, as it were, a button to give the "save" command.
Living remorselessly in the present tense, we treat school curricula as so much soft wax, taking the impress of
the intellectual whims and fads of the moment. So, assigned reading is forever being fine-tuned for "relevance,"
which is defined as service to fluid notions of multicultural "diversity."
What is to be done? Schools, including colleges, must insist upon the prestige of reading, and especially of reading
old books. Americans are not reading books the way they used to, and that is unfortunate. The printed word is doing
well in America, principally because of newspapers and magazines. However, as purchasers of books, measured per
capita, Americans fall far behind the British and Germans. American publishers produce about 50,000 new titles
a year. So do the British, for a much smaller market. Germany, with a population less than one-third of that of
the United States, publishes 60,000 titles.
Americans spend big sums on books - about $26 billion annually on books of all sorts, from cookbooks to Bibles
to textbooks to novels. That $26 billion is equal to the amount Americans spend annually on cosmetics and hair
care. The average expenditure on books by the approximately 100 million American households is $160. The average
household buys 18 books per year. But to prevent a premature outbreak of cheerfulness, let me put this in perspective.
A John Grisham novel typically sells two million copies in hardback and another three million in paperback. This
means that any World Wrestling Federation event on cable television draws an audience larger than the audience
for the best selling author in history. The video of the movie "Titanic" sold more copies in its first
week on sale than the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sold in its first 52 weeks on The New York Times
I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon....
Wait. Strike that. I do of course want to sound like a curmudgeon. I make my living sounding that way. It is called
doing what comes naturally. A conservative's vocation - literally, his calling - is to affirm standards that are
out of date. But then, as has been said, standards are always out of date. That is why they are called standards.
Still, my aim is not to be just one more voice in the swelling chorus of complaint about the dumbing down of everything.
So I shall not dwell on the fact that more high school students can name the Three Stooges than can name the three
branches of government.
Rather, my aim - and here I speak as a public commentator - is to warn that there is a seamlessness to cultural
memory. A present-tense culture will forget more than who Smike, Barkis and Micawber were. It also will forget
who Clay, Calhoun and Webster were, and why they mattered, and still do.
A common cultural vocabulary is more than just, in Burke's words, "the decent drapery of life." It is
more than merely decorative. It is practical, because it facilitates adult conversation. As has been said, societies
should be like icebergs: "beneath the surface, there's the unseen seven-eighths, the shared history on which
the top eighth sits." Unfortunately, the bottom seven-eighths is melting because "a modern, electronic
culture exists in a state of perpetual anticipation" of the new.
I am, I know, biting some of the hands that feed me when I say I agree with the warning that all institutions are
in danger in a media age, an age of saturation journalism. A media-besotted age assumes the irrelevance of anything
whose authority has anything to do with its being old.
Cicero warned that, "To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain ever a child."
Woodrow Wilson worried that Americans were "in danger of losing our identity and becoming" - in Wilson's
well-chosen word - "infantile in every generation.... We stand dismayed to find ourselves growing no older,
always as young as the information of our most numerous voters.... The past is discredited among them because they
played no part in choosing it."
A college can only fulfill the role Wilson assigned it - as society's "seat of vital memory" and "organ
of recollection" - if it sets out to reward reading by augmenting the prestige of readers.
I write for newspapers and magazines; I work on television. But this I know: Books remain the best, the primary
carriers of ideas. And history is the history of mind. It is, not only because ideas have consequences, but because
only ideas have large and lasting consequences. Ours is a proudly practical society that prefers people of "action"
to people of mere contemplation. But the rise - the inundating rise - of graphic journalism and entertainment has
at least served to remind us of a basic fact:
Reading is an activity. It involves the active engagement of the mind in ways that contrast sharply with the essential
passivity that is possible for - passivity that is even required for - the ingestion of most electronic communication.
So, reading is demanding, often difficult - even, it is not too much to say, strenuous. Which is why most people,
most of the time, would rather do something else.
Which is why it must be encouraged, not merely by being required, but by being honored.
Which is as close as I am going to come to an agenda for action for the Class of 2002. If my lamentations are sound,
Thiel will know better than I do what to do about them. Thiel will know how to make lifetime readers. In any case,
I thank Thiel for the privilege of this opportunity to unburden myself of these thoughts. I thank all of you for
your patience in hearing me out.
And I wish my classmates in the Class of 2002 - Godspeed.
Copyright (c) George F. Will. All Rights
Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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