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Lafayette awarded 518 bachelor’s degrees to 512 graduating seniors and honorary doctorates to four distinguished leaders, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, television personality, and author George F. Will, at the 165th Commencement May 20.

In his commencement address Will spoke against the emphasis on “values” rather than “virtues” that has come to characterize political and ethical discourse in the United States and other democracies.

“When you hear, as you frequently will this year, politicians speaking of their values and America’s values, understand that you are in the presence of America’s problem, not America’s solution,” Will told the graduates.

Please see below for the complete text of Will’s speech.

Lafayette President Arthur J. Rothkopf awarded Will the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. Peter J. Paris, the Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, delivered a sermon at the morning’s Baccalaureate service and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. Other honorands were Michael H. Danjczek, the president and executive director of The Children’s Home of Easton, Easton, Pa. (Doctor of Humanities) and Marcia D. Greenberger, the founder and co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, Washington, D.C. (Doctor of Laws).

George Beres of Queensbury, N.Y., recipient of the George Wharton Pepper Prize, awarded to the senior who most closely represents the “Lafayette Ideal,” delivered farewell remarks for the class of 2000.

Three retiring faculty members who have been elected to emeritus status were recognized by Rothkopf. They are Bernard Fried, the Gideon R. Jr., and Alice L. Kreider Professor of Biology; David L. Hogenboom, the Marshall R. Metzgar Professor of Physics; and John P. Losee Jr., the James Renwick Hogg Professor of Philosophy. Also recognized were Herman C. Kissiah who retired last fall after 33 years of service as dean of students.

Two retiring trustees who have been elected to emeritus status were recognized by Lawrence J. Ramer, chairman of the Board of Trustees. They are Lucy Wilson Benson and Alan D. Pesky, a member of the Class of 1956.

Rothkopf and Ramer made a special presentation to Count Gilbert de Pusy La Fayette, who is a direct descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette through the Marquis’ son, George Washington Lafayette.

Mary Kate McCullen of Havertown, Pa., and Erin F. Rogers of Pittston, Pa., the cochairs of the Class of 2000 gift committee, presented the class gift.

Rothkopf; Christopher W. Gray, the dean of studies; and James Woolley, the Smith Professor of English and clerk of the faculty, conferred the degrees upon the graduates.

Joseph A. Sherma, the John D. and Francis H. Larkin Professor of Chemistry and the senior member of the faculty, led the academic procession as Bearer of the Mace. James F. Krivoski, the dean of students, marshalled the Class of 2000. The class officers are Bryce G. Murray of Washington, N.J., president; R. Brent Roberts of Madison, Conn., vice president; Amanda L. Friel of Cape May, N.J., secretary; and Carey L. Mazzoni of Dallas, Pa., treasurer.

Provost June Schlueter marched at the head of the faculty. Trustee Emeritus Herbert P. Harkins, a member of the Class of 1934, led the trustees and the platform party.

Gary R. Miller, College chaplain, delivered the invocation, and Paris gave the benediction. William J. Nayden, Class of 1978, the director of the Lafayette Madrigal Singers, led the singing of “America the Beautiful” and the Madrigal Singers led the singing of the “Alma Mater.”

165th Commencement
May 20, 2000
Address by George F. Will

Mr. President, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished faculty, proud parents—proud and somewhat-lighter-in-the-wallet parents—and especially members of the Class of 2000—make that “fellow members of the Class of 2000.”

I thank Lafayette College for the honor of allowing me to receive with you, my classmates, a degree today. I do not deserve this honor, but then I am slowly recovering from a broken wrist, and I did not deserve that, either.

Your motive in inviting a columnist to address you on this occasion is mortifyingly transparent. This is the last lecture you must endure on this campus, and you know that columnists, no matter what they say, must say it briefly.

What I say may come too late to do you a lick of good, you who today take your leave of this fine institution, but I will say it anyway: I think I have finally figured out the purpose of higher education. I have acquired this sunburst of understanding, if such it truly is, by thinking long and hard about an offensive—at least to me—aspect of American politics just now. I refer to the incessant and ubiquitous talk about “values.”

Today our nation is enjoying peace and unprecedented prosperity. These happy circumstances allow, even seem to demand, a preoccupation with the teaching of what are nowadays called “values.” The word values is a relatively new, and I believe regrettable, vocabulary for discussing a recurring American preoccupation: the possible decay of our national character.

When the Marquis de Lafayette returned to America for a hero’s tour in 1824—which tour led to the naming of this college—his extended visit catalyzed the young republic’s unease about what it sensed was a decline from the pinnacle achieved by the Revolutionary generation that by then had largely passed from the scene.

Then, as now, the nation was feeling its oats economically, but also was feeling queasy about whether its character was as strong as its economy. Indeed it worried that the process by which it was becoming rich—the banking, industrialization, speculation, and urbanization of early capitalism—was leading it away from the sturdy virtues of a yeoman’s republic.

However, the anxiety of that day was not voiced in talk about values. Instead, Americans talked then as the Founders had talked: of virtues. You may well wonder: values, virtues, what’s the difference? Consider. I think the difference is large.

Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb rightly says that political talk about values is now so ubiquitous we forget how new such talk is. It began, Himmelfarb says, just 17 years ago, during Britain’s 1983 general election campaign, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher jauntily embraced the accusation—and it was an accusation—that she favored “Victorian values.” Except, of course, that the Victorians themselves, those muscular moralists, never spoke of values, but of virtues.

Once upon a time the word values was used most as a verb, meaning “to esteem,” as in “I value your friendship.” It also was a singular noun, such as in “inflation hurts the value of the currency.” However in today’s political discourse, value is becoming a plural noun denoting beliefs and attitudes of individuals and societies. And what this means is that Freidrich Nietzsche’s nihilistic intent, the de-moralization of society, is advancing.

The de-moralization of society is advanced when the word values supplants the word virtues in political and ethical contexts. When we move beyond talk of good and evil, when the categories virtue and vice are transcended, we are left with the thin gruel of values-talk.

Oh, but how very democratic values-talk is. Unlike virtues, everyone has lots of values; everyone has as many as they choose. Hitler had skads of values. George Washington had virtues. Who among those who knew him—surely not the Marquis de Lafayette—would have spoken of George Washington’s values? No one.

Values-talk, alas, suits today’s zeitgeist. It is the talk of a non-judgmental age. Ours is an age judgmental only about the sin of being judgmental. Today it is a mark of broadmindedness to say, “Oh, one person’s values are as good as another’s.” But it is, of course, nonsense to say, “One person’s virtues are as good as another’s.”

Values are an equal-opportunity business. They are mere choices. In contrast, virtues are habits, difficult to develop and therefore not accessible to all. Therefore, speaking of virtues rather than values is elitist, offensive to democracy’s egalitarian, leveling ethos, which I say is precisely why talk of virtues should be revived and talk of values should be abandoned.

Another great Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, who toured America not long after Lafayette did, noted that although much is gained by replacing aristocratic with democratic institutions and suppositions, something valuable is often lost. What is lost is the ability to recognize and the hunger to honor hierarchies of achievement and character. Therefore, democracy requires the cultivation of preventative virtues. Preventative virtues are those that counter certain unhealthy tendencies in democracies.

Let us hear about this from a man who is currently completing a new translation of de Tocqueville’s magnificent “Democracy in America.” I refer to Harvey Mansfield. Harvey C. Mansfield, because of his opposition to grade-inflation, is known at Harvard as “Harvey C-minus Mansfield.” He is Harvard’s conservative.

He notes that a theme of American literature, writ large, for example, in the works of Mark Twain, is the effect of democracy on the higher qualities of human beings. To counter democracy’s leveling ethos, with its tinge of envy of those who possess scarce excellence, universities, Harvey Mansfield says, should teach students to praise.

Students, that is, should learn to look up, up to the heroic in thought and action, in politics and history and literature, in science and faith. After all, the few men and women who become heroes do so by looking up, by being pulled up by some vision of nobility, which makes a hero quite unlike, something quite different from, a role model. The concept—”role model”—is also a very democratic notion. A role model is something anyone can successfully choose to emulate.

Here, then, is higher education’s special purpose in a democratic culture. Its purpose is to turn young people toward what is high.

A wit has said that in the 19th century England’s ruling class developed its system of elite secondary schools for the purpose of making sure that Byron and Shelley could never happen again. The purpose of American higher education is not to serve as a values-cafeteria where young people are encouraged to pick whichever strikes their fancy. Rather, the purpose of higher education for citizens of a democracy should be to help them identify excellence in its various realms and to understand what virtues make it so.

This message for a commencement season is also perennially germane to our political seasons. When you hear, as you frequently will this year, politicians speaking of their values and America’s values, values here and values there, understand that you are in the presence of America’s problem, not America’s solution.

There, that is my message. As I said, columnists are required to be brief. Brevity is not among the columnist’s values. Rather brevity is a columnist’s necessary virtue.

Again I thank this college for giving me the privilege of delivering the last lecture to the Class of 2000. I thank you all for the courtesy of your attentiveness. Now go forth and have fun, you’ve earned it. You have earned it by meeting the high standards of this college, a college worthy of its basketball team, a college whose founders named it for the Marquis de Lafayette, and who did that, they said, because of their respect for—listen to this language, I’m quoting the founders of your college—Lafayette’s “talents, virtues, and signal services(to) the great cause of freedom.”

Virtues, not values. Thank you.

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