Commencement Address

William S. Livingston


The University of Texas at Austin

May 22, 1999

      Mr. President, Regent Loeffler, Chancellor Cunningham, Colleagues, Students, Distinguished Guests, Undistinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen…

      I thank you, Dr. Faulkner, for that most agreeable introduction—a triumph, I suggest, of charity over discretion. But at my age—to which the President has gracefully alluded—one is in no position to scoff at charity, or reject it when offered. The other day, I counted it up. I have served under thirteen presidents, counting Dr. Flawn only once and not counting me at all. Fifty years is quite a long time—my heavens, to most of you kids it must seem an eternity—but it’s not too bad, especially when you consider the well-known alternative.

      Nowadays, commencement speakers everywhere begin with some sort of apology, fearing that their speech is going to be thought dull, obscure, long-winded, forgettable, and pompous—and more often than not, they are right. But they don’t really mean it. As Teddy Roosevelt said, this is a bully pulpit, and most speakers, including me, are glad to have the chance to pontificate.

      The reason commencement speeches are pompous is that they involve an attempt by an older speaker to convey to a younger audience certain fundamental truths. And whenever that happens, the result is almost certain to be pompous. That is the first fundamental truth that I wish to communicate to you this evening.

      And here is a second truth. It is the task of every generation to protect and reassert society’s values, especially when they are threatened by disdain, neglect, or passion. But the preservation and transmission of values is not easy and it is not always successful.

      To illustrate: One recalls Socrates’s lamentations concerning the incorrigibility of the youth of Athens.

      Or, later on, in the 18th and 19th centuries, we devised methods for instructing the young—by rule, by rote, and by rod—out of which they learned both how to make judgments and how to behave.

      Still later—one can cite the original catalogue of the University of Texas, which waved a minatory finger at all applicants, saying:

It is the experience of our higher institutions of learning
that a large proportion of our candidates for admission are
deficient in English.

That was 1883, but the struggle goes on. And I will give you one final illustration. Not long ago, I had a meeting with a student group, at which someone remarked that Gloria Steinem these days had become rather out of fashion. My quick, and I thought rather clever, rejoinder was, "Sic transit Gloria." But the group merely look puzzled. The struggle continues. Indeed, it continues to this very day if I measure correctly the reaction or non-reaction of this audience to what I just said.

      But I must get back to the bombast and pomposity that I promised you. To that end, I have prepared several sets of remarks, which will be arranged under three headings—congratulatory, admonitory, and hortatory.

      First, I extend my congratulations to all of you. This, after all, is a Commencement, the culmination of your academic enterprise. Its purpose is to proclaim that you have met your degree requirements and that the degrees are now to be conferred upon you. So I say, congratulations to you all. Well, almost all. Some of you may still be wondering about your grade in English three-zero-six . . . "This grade has not been recorded."

      But it will all work out—somehow—and I congratulate you none the less.

      And now for the admonitory part. I should first say that to admonish you is not to reprimand you, but to encourage you—gently, earnestly, sympathetically. If you are now to be graduates of this University, you must understand that an important obligation falls upon you. You have made clear that you are going to be part of the intellectual elite of the next generation. And in this age of insistent egalitarianism, that is no mean responsibility. C. P. Snow once said, "We have come into a period where we are unwilling to say that anybody is better than anybody else—except in athletics." I say, nonsense! You are going to be part of an elite. You will be more successful than others, more competitive, and more often called upon—and more will be expected of you. After all, my friends, you are graduates of the University of Texas.

      Now, knowing that you are going to be the elite is a bit unsettling. For it means that you have a responsibility to develop your talents to the maximum, and to put them to use for noble purposes. Some of you will not have the luck or the appetite or the guts to pull it off. But surely you have the obligation to try. You are inheriting the greatest country in the world, not only the most powerful, but the most democratic and the most free. But these days it is beset by cynicism and withdrawal, and it will fail without the active participation of its educated elite. Your job is to make sure that it endures and prospers.

      My friends, yours are the faces and the hearts of tomorrow. You hold within yourselves the power to shape the world, and I admonish you to make it a better place—because you and I and our progeny will have to live in it. You are the children of a new hope and a new commitment. Do not falter!

      Now third, comes the hortatory part. I intend to give you some real advice. I want you to listen to it and act upon it. Take notes. I do this because I have been a Dean for many years, and giving advice is a prerogative, and even a propensity, of Deans. In one of the newer buildings on the campus, there is mounted on the wall of the men’s room one of those hot-air machines for drying your hands. Some wag has taped a sign on it that says, "For a short lecture by the Dean, press this button." That sort of irreverence is to be discouraged.

 Well, here is my exhortation and my advice:


Don’t ever be afraid to use your minds merely because it is not popular.
Don’t ever feel sheepish about wanting to be good at what you do. You must try to be the very best at what you do.
Don’t ever hesitate to be literate, even if it marks you as a bit eccentric. If you can read and write, admit it.
People often try to get by the easiest way possible. Don’t do that. Do it right. Do it fully. Do it with pride.
And finally—always remember this:
There is no tyranny and no failure quite so great as the habit of accepting second best from oneself.
      And so, my friends, my message is simple enough. You’ve got it, so put it to use. Don’t flaunt it, but take pride in it. Don’t scorn your fellow citizens, but always help in the business of the community. Whatever your line of work, all of you must be aware, alert, and active. I believe a person should take an active role in any community of which he or she is a part. After all, being active in the community is what makes it a community, is it not? And I say to you here and now that there is no greater satisfaction, and perhaps no greater aphrodisiac, than to know that you have really had some effect on the course of public action. At the very least, dammit, you can go out and vote!

      Well, I warned you at the beginning that commencement speakers always give advice. That is partly because, having more experience, they think they have more wisdom and are thus entitled. It is also because giving advice consoles them for not being any longer able to set bad examples. The trouble is that the advice is mostly unsolicited and rather heavy-handed. But not always. As you see, mine is measured, moderate, and rather charming.

      And I will give you an even better example. On this very platform, just three years ago, Governor George W. Bush delivered the commencement address. It was perhaps the least pompous commencement speech of our time, but it did contain some advice. He said that baseball should be played outdoors, on grass, and with wooden bats. And who’s to say that he was wrong?

      I am putting all this to you rather straightly. But I want you to understand that there is something distinctive about being a graduate of the University of Texas. People will observe your dignity, skills, and charm, and they will say to themselves, "He or she must be a UT graduate." Or perhaps it will be the other way around. They will say, "That person is a UT graduate, so we know that he or she can read and write and cipher, and can be counted on to make real contributions to society." It will be noted that you are literate in your conversation, responsible in your outlook, rigorous in your reasoning, urbane in your demeanor, firm in your convictions, and tolerant in your treatment of your fellow human beings. But you must also be adroit in your public life. People will tell you it is not what you know that counts, it’s who you know. Well, I can tell you here and now that that is wrong. It’s not who you know, it’s whom you know.

      Henceforth, you are to be alert, intelligent, and innovative. Just don’t be a smart-ass. I say it that way for three reasons. The first is that I am the Senior Vice President and I can get away with it. The second is that I want this speech to be memorable. And the third is to make the point that you don’t always have to be utterly conventional. Be a little audacious now and then, always remembering that a little audacity goes a long way. It must be for a purpose, and it must always march with decorum. You should mostly stay within the general bounds of convention and propriety. That, too, is part of our civic culture.

      So now, it is up to you to vindicate our confidence in you and justify our imprimatur. Work hard. Be right. Be noble. And, if possible, be rich. The Bible says it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. Don’t you believe it! Being rich is fine. No doubt, it is better to be good than to be rich, but if you can combine the two by making regular and substantial contributions to the University’s annual giving fund, then you will have the best of all possible worlds.

      You already know that the stated mission of this University is to transform lives for the benefit of society. But what kind of transformation is it to be? One sage skeptic said the purpose of college was to reduce the amount of time you thought about the other sex from 80 percent to 60 percent. To that end, he cited the usefulness of laboratories, whiskey, and football. "Or," he said, "you could even read a book." A very distinguished educator once said to me that the purpose of a college education was to make the student as little like his or her parents as possible. I am not sure all of you will agree with that, especially if you happen to be parents, but it is transformation that we are after—and all of you, students and parents alike, will have to face up to the consequences. All you really have to do after you graduate is to be audacious—though not too audacious—and set about transforming the world into a better place.

      Let me now close on a personal note. A few of you may have heard me say that, as a young faculty member, I used to read Hamlet and Plato’s Republic every year. That was my effort at "continuing education" and it was a kind of personal credo—admittedly self-serving. But I never enjoyed it as much as I should have and I abandoned the habit long ago, perhaps because of the pressure of time and other demands, but also I think because I got rather bored and annoyed. Plato postulated the existence of certain absolute truths, but it always turned out that he was the only one who could perceive them. Plato seemed to know everything. Hamlet, on the other hand, could never make up his mind about anything. I finally decided that Plato’s truth was too elusive—and perhaps illusory—and that educated folk might well conclude that Protagoras or Pythagoras came closer to the truth than he did. I also decided that I couldn’t wait forever for Hamlet to get on with it. I concluded that Plato was a pontificating old ass, and that Hamlet was crazy. While each of them no doubt produced awesome insights into many things, neither one helped much in promulgating or perpetuating the values of a free society. So nowadays, I read political history and biography, and mystery yarns, and I watch the nature shows on television.

      Thus, I think it may be time for another generation of young innovative thinkers to take over. And, fortunately, you are here today. The time has come for us up here to pass the torch on to you out there, to the new elite, which is to say the educated and discriminating leaders of tomorrow, people who recognize (unlike Plato) that there is some uncertainty in human affairs, but who are nevertheless able (unlike Hamlet) to decide between what is right and what is wrong. And as for the torch—just don’t drop it.

      Well, I must bring this to a close, and in doing so, I have a parting word for all of you. Do remember that this is your home, the place where you made friends and came of age, a place that will be part of you forever, and of which you will be forever a part. Remember to come home now and then, both in spirit and in fact. Wherever you go from here, send us a postcard—along with your check—and we will keep you in our hearts.

      And yes, one other thing—I almost forgot—"good-bye and good luck."

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9 June 1999
The University of Texas at Austin
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