Our educational purpose is, in some fundamental sense, framed by the civic obligation that lies at the heart of our motto, a commitment to the society of which we are an essential part: to provide a better future, to make a better world.
Today, Willamette’s most cherished and difficult educational objective is to educate for civic responsibility. And being in a very important election year puts what we do here in a special light. The reduction of ideas and language to the lowest common denominator is one of the great dangers of contemporary American political society. The prevalent notion seems to be that a great mass of the people cannot understand, cannot form independent judgment on important topics that affect their lives, are incapable of meaningful intellectual engagement and reflection — attributes that distinguish our common humanity.
The noisy drum beat of slogans, the jangling discords of the news, the great storm of sound bytes that rain down ceaselessly upon the citizen make democracy vulnerable to those messages that are the loudest or most persistent rather than those that are most reasonable or well-considered. The waves and bits of detritus we endure now surpass anything that previous generations ever knew. Heaven help us from such puny, self-important and selfreferential small mindedness masquerading as intellectual analysis. If independent judgment is the sine qua non of effective citizenship in a democracy, then we must admit that it is harder to maintain now than it has ever been before. Is it too much to hope that a strong dose of education in childhood and youth can inoculate a person to withstand the onslaughts on independent judgment that spin masters concoct every day? For this, much diligence is required. Also required is an insistence that our graduates acquire those habits of mind that give them the capacity to think deeply and think for themselves.
In this election year, I think how difficult must be the trials of John and Jane Q. Public. Yet the Democratic primaries — no matter the winner — ensure that [we] will participate in a historic national election in November. More than anything else, the presidential election reminds us that the call to greatness is alive in every generation.
In today’s world, few things are more important than the cultivation of educated young men and women, clear-headed, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by the hard truth of science, imbued with personal integrity and with hearts warmed to the transforming power of virtue and beauty.
Our nation is in want of young women and men whose perspective, whose courage and whose capacity to see through the confusion of the moment will permit them to hew out of the mountainside of despair a city of hope. The democratic ideal is equal opportunity for full human development, and, since education is an intrinsic part of human dignity, the democratic ideal demands that we should strive to see to it that all have the opportunity to attain the fullest measure of education that is possible to each.
Let us be mindful of our future and of others in that future.
So, let me now close with words that have concluded each of my valedictories to the departing classes: When you depart from this commonwealth of learning, may your life bring you some work of noble note, may you find meaning in your commitment to others, and may your memories of Willamette be undying.
Good luck and good cheer.
M. Lee Pelton