Valedictory Address, University of Virginia
May 20, 2000
I'm used to being on television where I can see the people I'm talking to, but I've never been anywhere where I'm speaking to people in person where some of them were so far away I can't see them.
I hope to be able to say something different to you today, something that not everybody has said. I thought I might begin by being the first person who ever spoke here not to mention Thomas Jefferson.
I suppose the single most important thing I'd like to say in case there's any doubt in the minds of you graduating people is how good life can be. There're some really terrible moments ahead of you all, but life all and all is spectacularly good and if this were not so, none of us my age and older would be so desperately trying to fend off our impending demise.
One of the things you have to face is the unpleasant fact that you'll not ever arrive at any condition of life with which you're totally satisfied and happy. It seems unfortunate but it's true that to experience real happiness you, first, or occasionally anyway, have to be unhappy, so you're going to be unhappy sometimes. Just get used to it.
A strange thing about life is that ambition and satisfaction are at war. If you're ambitious, you aren't satisfied and if you're satisfied, you aren't ambitious. Most of us are plagued by ambition. It's one of the best and the worst things about us. There's no point of success we achieve where we say that's it. That's all of anything I want. I don't want to be any happier. I don't want to have a bigger house, another car. I don't need more respect from my friends.
You'll find that the best parts of your life are the small pleasures--a warm shower in the morning, the newspaper, staying dry under an umbrella when it rains, beating someone in a BMW away from a traffic light in your Jeep.
I trust none of you think you're educated now because you're getting a degree but it's a good start but it is just a start. Keep that in mind. Many of you are probably smarter than I am, but I'm up here talking to you. I'm not sitting down there listening to you talk to me. Not because I'm smarter than you are, but because I know more than you do.
One thing I'm awfully sorry to have to tell you is that what you've learned at the University of Virginia will be of absolutely no help to you whatsoever in real life. Most of it's like knowing how to get from here to Richmond for a date. It's good information to have, but it won't help you at all in real life. Of course, colleges charge so much now that they don't want to let you know that. College is basically a place where parents who can afford it store their kids for four years because they can't stand having them around the house while they grow up. The good thing about having an education is that it'll be a lifelong consolation to you. It'll be a pleasure every day of your life. Because of it, you'll be more aware. You'll be more interested in things. It isn't what an education does for you that makes getting one worthwhile. It's having one. Being educated is an end in itself, and it sets you apart from most of the people on the planet. It does set you apart, too. You'll have to remember that. If you start talking to a stranger you can tell within 10 seconds whether that person is educated or not. Often you can even tell whether the stranger went here or to William & Mary.
This is a time most of you are thinking about what you're going to do with your lives. It'd be presumptuous of me to suggest what you should do because it depends so much on what kind of person you are. By the time you get to be your age, you're pretty much set in your ways and you're all different, too. It's a mystery that happens to all of us. I don't know, and I don't know anyone who does know whether the differences in one person from another can be explained by genetics or by the effects of a diverse environment on a uniform human nature.
What you do now depends on what you're like and on what there is in the world that needs to be done. I hope you all understand how lucky you are to be graduating at a time when there're enough jobs for everyone. That may be an over statement. I did see a few of you around here this morning I doubt will ever get work. What the world needs keeps changing. The things that needed to be done when I was your age are not the same things that need to be done now. I was thinking just this morning as an example of how much the times influence what a person does with his life. If George Washington were alive today, he probably wouldn't be running for the Presidency along with Al Gore and George Bush. As a matter of fact, George Washington'd probably make a bad president in the year 2001, so it must be true that there're a lot of potentially great Americans living in obscurity today because we just don't happen to need the kind of ability they have this year. If George Washington had been born in 1980, as many of you probably were, instead of in 1732, he might be graduating from Virginia today and thinking about getting into developing new computer programs. Instead of the father of our country, he might be known as the mother of invention.
So anyway, you have to look at where you are in relation to the history of the world before you decide what to do. What are the problems that need to be solved? If there's an Alexander Graham Bell among you, too bad. There are no openings. The telephone has already been invented. What do we need done in America then that you could set out to do? It's my opinion that we have enough lawyers but I know some of you are going to become lawyers. It's inevitable. I hope some of you become doctors. We need more doctors and fewer medical programs. We need more mechanics and fewer car salesmen. We need more good television programs and fewer commercials.
If I could influence you at all with what I'm saying here today, and I realize that a speech like this is just an obligatory formality and will have absolutely no salutary effect on you whatsoever, but I know the direction in which I'd send you if I could. I'd tell you that if you that if you have a choice between getting a job where you could make a lot of money and a job doing something you really like for a little money, no doubt about it. Take less money. The ideal job, of course, is one you love that makes a lot of money. That's possible, too.
I was looking at this week's Time magazine on the plane coming down here. The plane that comes to Charlottesville is too small to read a newspaper on, but Time has an article this week called the hottest jobs of the future. Number one, according to Time was tissue engineer. Now, I've been inspecting this audience and I don't see a tissue engineer among you. I don't think there are any, but the author talks about enterprise software, interactive communications networks, outsourcing, and virtual meetings. I thought the Time article was largely nonsense myself.
You can talk, you can virtually meet. You can communicate for just so long, and then someone has to do something. Someone has to make something. I mean, who's going to rebuild those 250 houses that burned down last week in Los Alamos? An interactive communications network? A virtual meeting? I don't think so. It's going to take carpenters, plumbers and electricians.
You're going to have to deal with change, of course. We all know that. There's no question, too, that even change is changing faster than it used to. In spite of change, though, I'm constantly impressed by how little the high tech inventions we think of as progress have really helped. The software and hardware that we've developed is incredible, but you have to question, for example, whether or not technology has really improved the human condition overall or made us any happier.
When I don't have anything else to think about, I think about whether all of mankind cumulatively is happier or less happy, than we used to be. Used to be a 100 years ago, 2000 years ago, when people were living in caves without electric light, without automobiles, without airplanes, televisions, without computers, even without Diet Coke, are we happier now that we have all those things?
No instrument has ever been invented to measure the happiness waves emanating from the DNA of 1000-year old skeletons, and just as I question whether people over the world are any happier than before they had all these toys, I'm puzzled about whether we're any smarter than people were at 1000 or 10,000 years ago. Are we getting more done with all the time we save on the job with the help of technology and great inventions? Not that I notice.
It was assumed that computers would reduce the amount of paper we consume. Computers are chewing into stacks of stationery like no amount of carbon paper or Xerox machines ever did. We built ribbons of major highways everywhere. We paved America to relieve traffic on smaller roads. Is traffic reduced anywhere you drive? Have automated tellers made lines any shorter at the bank? Now that you pump your own gas in many places, have they reduced the price of a gallon of gas because they don't have to pay someone to pump it for you? I don't think so. Did you get better marks this year because it was easier to find information you need on a computer than it used to be to find it in a book in the library? I don't think so. When work becomes easier, we assume we'll spend less time doing it but that's almost never true. People who used to work 40-hour weeks are now using the Internet, outsourcing and downloading, but they're working 70 hours a week doing it.
I hope you don't decide that every job, every problem, can be solved by a computer. I use a computer, but I can't help remembering that behind every technological device there's someone who makes something or does something with his or her hands. It's fine to talk about how much easier it is to distribute information and to communicate with each other but if no one has any interesting ideas to communicate, what difference does it make how easy it is to communicate them? Communicate what? We desperately need to concentrate on the content of what's being communicated rather than the method of its transportation. I mean, the idea of e-mail is terrific. I use it. But the average message I get over the e-mail is idiotic, zero.
Some of you are probably good with your hands. Don't rule out working with your hands. It does not preclude using your head. There's no reason why education should be incompatible with craftsmanship. I don't care what Time says. I think the demand in the future is not going to be for computer programs or tissue engineers. It's going to be for the people who know how to do something. Those are the people we're going to be short of in the workplace. I can imagine not too far in the future a carpenter making $250,000 a year building a house for a computer programmer making $150,000 a year.
When it comes to looking for work, we do have some real problems you could turn your attention to. If you have any solutions for them, you could have a very satisfactory life and probably make a comfortable living. Some of the things that need to be done are very complex.
Our culture is flourishing but science and technology needs more help. It is my belief that in the long run the survival of our society depends more on the success of our science than our art. As a writer, I am reluctant to concede that this is true but it is true. Of course, it would be a sorry world without art or culture. I keep thinking we ought to be relying more on the hard truths of science and technology. I hope you get a job where you really have to know something, where you can't fake it on the job. If you get into some technical field or become a scientist, I hope you assert yourself. Too often the people who really know something have not done that. I think that's true of college professors as a matter of fact. Too many of them do not give their students the benefit of their true beliefs because it's often dangerous for them to do so.
There are things that are true and things that are not true. There's no doubt about it, and the people who know ought to let us know what the truth is. I was thinking about this last week when the Pope was in Portugal. You don't have to be Catholic to admire the goodness of Pope John Paul II, but in Portugal last week he got a lot of attention proclaiming what he said was the third miracle of Fatima. Fatima, of course, is a city in Portugal. Without getting into what the Pope said the third miracle was, if miracles really took place in Fatima, we ought to know about them, how and why they happen. We should use that knowledge for other good things to improve our world. Miracles, if they really happen, are too good to hide from the rest of us. If people are cured of disease by a visit to the shrine at Lourdes we should know about that and probably all go there when we get a bad cold. A serious study should be made and if a visit to Lourdes by scientists does not prove that it does anything for an ailing body, that ought to be revealed too and a sign posted there labeling it as a tourist attraction. I have great faith in the strength of reason, even though I may have limited ability to apply it. We have to believe that honest and educated inspection of all our problems is the best way to live successfully. There are a lot of people who don't believe that, that prefer not to face the truth about anything.
All this inability to face the truth doesn't make them bad people. It comes from modesty I believe, a sense of inadequacy many people have. They feel that if everything they are and everything they're going to become in this world depends on their own ability, then they're afraid they're not good enough. They think they're in trouble. They don't think they're capable or smart enough to do it right. If, on the other hand, their success and happiness depends on hoping and praying, getting help from the government, maybe winning the lottery, then they aren't so nervous. They feel their destiny is in better hands than their own. Well, I don't think so, and I hope you can be persuaded that it is not. Your destiny is in your own hands. Don't get hit by a truck, but your destiny is in your own hands.
My friend Harry Reasoner once gave me some good advice about commencement addresses. He said you can start out funny but you should end up sad, so I have a sad thought today. This is your valedictory. It's from the Latin "vale" meaning goodbye and "deserere" to say. You're here to say goodbye. Something that has surprised and dismayed me over the years is what happens to friends. You'll find that by the time you've reached my age, you've made more friends than you have time to keep and many good ones have disappeared from your life. It seems unfair and wrong but it's true. I had 50 reasonably close friends when I was in college at Colgate. Seven were killed in World War II, but over the years I kept in touch with about 10 of them. I didn't lose touch with the others because we no longer liked each other. We lost track of each other because there wasn't enough time to be friends with everyone you felt friendly towards, but that's the big reason this is a sweet and sour day for you. It's sweet because you've gained a major objective in your life. It's sad because as I speak you're seeing many good friends for the last time. If you live to be a 100, there aren't many days you'll remember better than the day you graduated from college and I am pleased to have been here today to be part of your great time. That's all the sad stuff I'm going to say.
I've been to a lot of commencement speeches and when they're over, there's a lot of chatter afterwards but I never heard anyone say it was good speech but it was too short.
© 2000, Andy Rooney, All Rights Reserved.