Wake Forest University’s Commencement ceremony was particularly special this year because my oldest son graduated (with a B.S. in Finance, Summa Cum Laude, if I may brag on him just a bit). It is always exciting to be present to the symbolic transition of students from their pasts into their futures. All the more so when that student is your kid and you have a front row seat and can snap a quick selfie.
This year’s commencement speaker was Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian (books on Jefferson, Jackson, FDR, and George H.W. Bush). In the era of celebrity commencement speakers — e.g., Stephen Colbert at Wake Forest in 2015, Will Ferrell at USC this year — choosing a scholar to give your commencement address can inspire reactions from yawns to disappointment (among students, especially).
Of course, choosing someone as your commencement speaker because they are smart instead of well-known or wealthy has the benefit of producing smarter commencement addresses. To wit: In my time as a faculty member, David Brooks gave one of the smarter commencement addresses I’ve seen.
I thought Jon Meacham’s commencement address this year was smart, too. In particular he talked about partisanship, reason, reflection, truth, and error in a way I found compelling. I’ve bolded the sections I found most significant in the extended excerpt below:
The great fact of America today is pervasive partisanship. Too many of us are given to reflexively reacting to whatever unfolds in the public square – not according to our reason but to our ideological and even tribal predispositions. Now I want to be very clear about this. Partisanship is not an intrinsically bad thing. The middle way is not always the right way. It’s in the nature of things and in the nature of human beings to hold fast to views and allegiances, to heroes and to creeds, to the exclusion of other views and other allegiances, other heroes and other creeds. Such is politics, which is both an emotional and a rational undertaking. What is worth avoiding, however – and too many of us are doing too little to avoid this – is reflexive, as opposed to reflective partisanship.
The point of America is not for all of us to agree. That is impossible and undesirable in any event. Autocracies are about total agreement. Or at least total submission. The American republic is founded on the notion that even the person with whom I most stridently disagree may have something to say worth hearing and heeding and that the only way I can figure out whether that’s the case is by listening to that person and by weighing the relative merits of what is said and then –only then – making up my mind.
The danger – and this is all too pervasive at the moment – lies in my reflexively dismissing a point made by a person simply because that person is the one making the point. That’s a foreclosure of reason. I’d argue that’s a sin because the human capacity for judgment – however flawed, however fallen – is the great gift that distinguishes us above the beasts of the field and the trees of the forest and the creatures of the sea. So I beg you, truly: Be reflective about our public life. Make up your mind based on facts, not alternative facts or alternative evidence.
Be open to the very real possibility that you might be wrong from time to time and people you thought were beyond redemption might be right.
I’ve learned alot about myself and others by hanging out with people whose social and political views are different from mine, so Meacham’s comments definitely resonated with me.