Commencement Wisdom

Several years ago, upon the retirement of our 12th president, the late Thomas K. Hearn, Jr., the University printed a book titled “On This Day of Endings and Beginnings – Charges to the Graduates of Wake Forest University 1984-2004.”  It was a small book with excerpts from Dr. Hearn’s various Commencement addresses.

In 1998, he quoted Emerson as part of his speech:

“Emerson defined success as follows:

To laugh often and love much, to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world better whether by a healthy child, a garden path, or redeemed social conditions; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived – that is to have succeeded.‘”

Dr. Hearn continued: “That is not, of course, the definition one would find these days at a career-planning seminar.  It says nothing of power or wealth or status.  But it does describe those qualities which, if practiced over a lifetime, promise to join success with life’s other ultimate aims – goodness and happiness.”

President Nathan O. Hatch explored the idea of learning and understanding in his 2011 address to the graduates.  He said, in part: “A life of learning also requires a willingness to challenge conventional thinking.  Many pundits today come to quick conclusions and spend most of their energy elaborating and defending those positions. Our world is far too complex to be understood in sound bites, through Wikipedia moments, or by listening to talking heads that debate the predictable.  Read both sides of important arguments.  Compare the best minds in the world on a given topic of interest.   Refuse easy answers.  Compare the wisdom of the ages with contemporary fashion.  Base your convictions on deep understanding.

To learn and keep on learning, Aristotle suggested, is near the essence of what it is to be human.  In his eyes a quest to understand was integral to living pro humanitate – for the best of human flourishing.  As you go forth from this place, I trust that you will accomplish much and that you will serve many.   But let our lives of action and influence always be shaped by a quest, first, to understand.”  Read Dr. Hatch’s full address.

When you call your students – hopefully today, as Friday calls have great benefits – or when you have some time for deep conversation, ask your student what he or she thinks about success, lifelong learning, service, meaning.  Prompt your student to think about the issues that go beyond the classroom, but will influence how he will spend the rest of his life.  Ask him what “Pro Humanitate” means to him.  And if your student doesn’t have an answer yet, challenge him to reflect on that and sit with it a bit – and agree to talk about it again later.

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