Remarks of W. Randy Eaddy
Furman University Commencement
May 7, 2016
President Davis, members of the faculty, fellow Trustees, proud parents and family of the graduates, and the Furman University Class of 2016 . . . I am honored to deliver the commencement address at this special institution, which sits at the epicenter of my life.
Class of 2016, I salute you. We all celebrate your current success, and we anticipate with great excitement the things you will do in the future. Give yourselves a round of applause.
40 years ago, I was where you are, waiting to receive my degree from Furman, except that we were gathered snugly inside McAllister Auditorium. It is symbolic as well as spectacular to be in Paladin Stadium this evening. The commencement speaker that day 40 years ago was the legendary Dr. Gordon W. Blackwell, also an alumnus of Furman and of Harvard University, but that is where any possible parallels between us end.
Dr. Blackwell was a renowned academician, who had returned to alma mater in 1965 as President and had led Furman’s rapid ascendancy into the upper echelon of liberal arts institutions. Dr. Blackwell was retiring as Furman’s President in 1976, and it was an honor for my class to have such a great man deliver our commencement address.
Class of 2016, you have me . . . which raises the obvious question: What on earth did you do wrong?
Preparing for this occasion has caused me considerable angst. The commencement speaker at a prominent liberal arts institution is expected to convey an impactful message, with some measure of erudition and the appearance of wisdom. And if not that, then at least be a celebrity who is funny. I was looking at going 0 for 3 here. On the other hand, my anxiety has been relieved by the certainty that those of you who do not fall asleep, or use this time to check your Twitter feed, will just plain forget everything I say.
As “millennials”, you are reputed to be radically different from prior generations, which I believe you wear as a badge of honor. But I know that the fundamental feelings you have on this occasion are universal and timeless. They include concerns about how to be successful . . . how to handle the trials and tribulations, and some outright failures, that most people encounter in the real world . . . and how to identify and follow your true passion, as the pathway to happiness and a good life.
Commencement speakers typically address those concerns, to some extent, and I will also. But, I will talk primarily about one issue and challenge that our world needs you to work affirmatively and purposefully to address.
Before turning to that, however, I want to deal fairly quickly with the anxieties about success and failure.
While I have been serving as a Furman Trustee during the time that you have been here as Furman students, I have wished that I were in your place. As much as Furman did to prepare and equip me for my future, I know how much more Furman has done to prepare and equip you for your lives beyond the Bell Tower and Furman’s mesmerizing fountains.
You have every reason to be excited and confident, even if a bit anxious. As Nathan intimated in his poignant remarks, you have been exceptionally well prepared to choose and follow your future paths . . . and to do so in a thoughtful manner that is informed by an appreciation of, along with empathy and deep respect for, the lives and circumstances of the diverse other people who comprise the global village in which your individual lives will unfold.
These things I know with certainty, because they have been the reality for me . . . the son of sharecrop tobacco farmers from tiny Johnsonville, South Carolina, population less than 2,000. When I arrived on this campus 44 years ago – literally having fallen off a pick-up truck, at a time when pick-up trucks were not fashionable – I was unspeakably naïve and unsophisticated, with no meaningful conception of the world around me, or how to effectively learn about it. Yet, under the guidance and nurturing of outstanding Furman professors and administrators, this son of sharecroppers was prepared to ultimately stand before you today.
Okay, I am still unsophisticated, but that part is not Furman’s fault. I blame it on Harvard.
In all of your cases, Furman and its current core of extraordinary educators have had a helluva lot more to work with. As a result, your preparedness to be successful, regardless of the career path you choose, is not subject to any real doubt.
You have learned lessons that you do not yet realize you know, and those lessons will serve you well. You have acquired skills that will manifest themselves when you face a specific obstacle or challenge in your life. And, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography, you will recognize your life’s true passion when you see it.
By the way, I do not mean to suggest that there is a nexus between pornography and your life’s true passion.
My confidence in this regard does not dismiss the significant burden of possible debt that some of you have incurred to get your degree, or that you may incur if you seek a post graduate degree. I am also not dismissing the significance of concerns about how new technologies and globalization will impact job markets in the future, or about the uncertainties that will accompany living in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world.
These phenomena will present real challenges. Because I am not the second coming of the great futurist Alvin Toffler, I cannot predict the specific manifestations of the changes that lie ahead. And, as much as I wish it were otherwise, because I am not Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or Oprah Winfrey, I cannot write a check (or set up an annuity for you) that might dissipate your possible concerns about the impact of these phenomena.
But I know and I reiterate that you have been prepared to handle them all.
The issue and challenge I will address, to which I mysteriously alluded earlier, will provoke some discomfort and unease. That is intentional, because I want you to see it with your eyes wide open. It is the issue of relations among the diverse peoples of this world.
I expect that you, like me, are disturbed by the ignorant and virulent strains of xenophobia and outright bigotry and racism that have been rearing their ugly heads of late. I expect that you, like me, are worried about what that portends for the future. I also expect that you, like me, recognize the imperative of dealing effectively with the disturbing implications.
I applaud the more enlightened attitudes toward diverse peoples that your generation, in large numbers, exhibits. You have done some good work in moving us closer to the world envisioned by the great John Lennon in his song “Imagine”, and its goal of people “living together as one.”
But recent events make clear that we are not there yet. And, they raise the question of whether John Lennon’s poetic and inspirational goal is realistic . . . is it possible as a practical matter . . . in light of the many things that appear to make us different from each other? Candidly, I do not know, and I dare say that no one else knows either.
But, I do know that we are capable of achieving an intermediate goal, which while less poetic and more pedestrian, is nonetheless imperative and noble: “We can work to understand the perspectives of other people who appear to be different from us,” recognizing that such understanding is the gateway to empathy and respect for all people. I believe that work is the great challenge for your generation, and you must take the lead in getting us old folk to do likewise.
But how should you approach that work? I am so glad you asked.
You must do those things, consciously until they become second nature, that will lead to a first hand understanding of other people at the personal and intimate level at which they “self define” who they are and what is important to them.
That won’t be easy or comfortable, as an initial matter. It will require initiating and sustaining intentional and purposeful social and personal interactions with those heretofore different other people, because it is only in such personal social settings that a first hand understanding of the self defining perspectives of other people is born and can be nurtured. You can’t just read about them on the Google. And, without such an understanding, you cannot have true respect, let along empathy, for people who appear to be different from you.
While technology and social media have impacted our behavior patterns, we remain social beings who instinctively desire personal interactions with others. We still routinely initiate and accept invitations to interact socially at a personal level. We invite people over for dinner . . . or to watch the game or a movie. In the case of millennials, the invitation might be: “Let’s go try that cool new vegan, gluten-free, super-authentic, 1920s moonshine cocktail bar (it has free WiFi).”
But, regardless of the activity, the key questions are these: Who will you call (or text) to invite? Who will accept the invitation and come? Who will not? And, in each case, Why?
Will you invite, for example, any of the following people who may work at your company, or who may be enrolled with you in same graduate program, or whom you otherwise see frequently and with whom you are cordial, but who are not part of your circle for personal social interactions: the woman who wears a hijab? the man who speaks with a thick foreign accent and is sometimes difficult to understand? the woman whom you saw wearing a “Black Lives Matter” tee shirt? the guy who has a buzz cut and likes to wear cowboy boots?
Of course, and it might not be necessary to say it, there is one exception. If he or she, black or white, straight or gay, liberal or conservative, likes to wear Clemson Tiger tee shirts, then you are free to condition your invitation on consent to a public burning of all the person’s Clemson regalia.
That aside, imagine the answers if you are working, affirmatively and purposefully, to achieve a deep, first hand, understanding of the self defining perspectives of other people.
I realize that interacting with people who appear to be different makes most of us uncomfortable and uneasy. “What will my friends think?” “How will they react to these unfamiliar other people?” “How will they react to me for inviting these other people?”
It is natural to want to avoid such discomfort and unease. But I submit to you that such avoidance will perpetuate a vicious cycle of misunderstanding, suspicion and distrust, and will add grease to the slippery slope that leads to disrespect, resentment, bigotry or even hate.
You are prepared, Class of 2016, to take on that discomfort and unease, and to work to break its vicious cycle, without fear of losing your way. I remind you of what Aristotle said in speaking about empathy, which a dear friend reminded me of recently: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Each of your minds has been superbly educated. You are prepared to introduce diverse peoples into your traditional circles of social and personal interactions . . . people whose perspectives are different from your own . . . in order to understand them at a self defining level. In the words of the now old Nike commercial, the challenge for you is to “Just Do It!”
Therein lies the pathway to becoming more tomorrow than you are on any particular day . . . and it is also the pathway to a good and noble life for you, and a better world for all.
You are prepared, Class of 2016 . . . Live long and prosper. Thank you.