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New Student Convocation

John T. Casteen III
August 25, 2002

Look around. One hundred eighty-five years ago, surveying the rough, scrabbled terrain of an untended field ("old turned-out field"), Thomas Jefferson stood more or less where you now sit. He had been imagining what an architectural historian would describe as these elegant geometries, these green descending planes, the cylinders, triangles and arches, the rectangles and circles, and just a bit of asymmetry (in the design and placement of the pavilions) to bring human dimensions to the Classical regularity. Welcome to this landscape of optimistic faith in the power of reason and of human potential to perfect the world.

A word about this place: It was designed to follow in form the rectangular layout of American villages of Mr. Jefferson's time—houses and shops assembled around a central square or green space, rather than the more common linear design of contemporary American colleges (academic buildings arranged in lines along the highest elevations in college towns across the country—Washington and Lee is an example) or the cloisters of Oxford or other European universities. It was to be an academic community with secular knowledge as the center of communal life, and it was to teach Americans by its physical shape how and what it is to live in communities.

In a time when most higher education was religious—sponsored by churches, and when the dominant building in most village plans was the white or red brick church with its tower or steeple—Mr. Jefferson's University had its library, the Rotunda in front of you, take the place normally assigned to a chapel. He sought out professors able to teach the new science and other disciplines new to America. Instead of the knowledge that underlies preaching or teaching in village schools, very much the common subject matter of other colleges of his time, he called for teaching what he called "useful sciences," subjects relevant in practical terms to the people of a new nation in its infancy.

And he arranged his village in such a way that Americans might learn by living in it how to live together. Professors lived as they still live in the pavilions. They taught classes as they still do in classrooms right in their houses. Students lived as they still do in the rooms between the pavilions and on the ranges on each side. Daily life was itself a process of learning, dialogue, discovery, dialectic—as I hope it will be for you also.

Over the years in this small city of young people, change rather than stasis has been the rule, which is the way of all vital things. This place that Mr. Jefferson called an "academical village" consisted in 1825 simply of the Rotunda, the pavilions, the colonnades and the Lawn. Today it covers 3,500 acres, and contains hundreds of buildings with something like 10 million square feet of space for living, learning, sport and recreation, research, medical care, and the other activities that bring us together here.

In 1825 there were 8 members of the faculty. Today, there are nearly 6,000 full and part-time faculty members. By the end of 1825, there were 123 students—fewer at the start because they kept coming as the word spread. Your class of 2006 numbers more than 3,000 [3,049]—very probably our largest class ever. Fifty-five percent of you are women. Thirty-two percent are of non-European descent [9.7 percent African descent; 9.5 percent Asian descent; 3.1 percent Hispanic descent]. Over two thousand of you come to the University from cities and counties across Virginia; more than one thousand hail from 46 states [including Virginia, D.C., and the Virgin Islands]; and 231 come from sixty-one countries spanning the globe—Afghanistan to Uruguay. With all you bring to us, you are the University's most valuable resource. Each one is a human treasure. Each one adds value and potential to this community of learners.

The expansion of the student body has led to greater excellence. When African Americans and women began to be admitted to our undergraduate schools, the University started to become the institution it was meant to be. Together, you define a community equal to Mr. Jefferson's vision. You are intellectually gifted: 97 percent of you were in the top 25 percent of your class; 84 percent, in the top 10 percent. Fifty percent of you scored between 1240 and 1410 on the SATs. Four have perfect scores. That means that you can expect us to expect, DEMAND, much of you.

Because you are capable, you have tremendous potential, each of you and you collectively, to change the world for the good—or for ill. Choose goodness; choose to be a positive influence. Follow Buckminster Fuller's advice: "I look for what needs to be done . . .. After all, that's how the Universe designs itself." Look for what needs to be done. And then take action. Go by Madison House and see how you can help your new community. Get involved in student government. Be a person of social consequence, but define that in terms of what you do for the community rather than in terms of what you wear, where you find recreation, who your friends are.

Taking responsibility for this community will be one of the most important and enduring things you do here—or anywhere else. You may not see results instantly—sound citizenship is the business of a lifetime—but you will make a difference. Describing his intentions to a friend, Mr. Jefferson called this place the great project of the end of his life. He wrote, "I am closing the last scenes of my life by fashioning and fostering an establishment for the instruction of those who are to come after us. I hope its influence on their virtue, freedom, fame, and happiness will be salutary and permanent." Like the University's founder, volunteer your time for good causes and you will plant seeds of the future.

Later tonight, when you sign the honor pledge, you will accept a sacred trust. By way of this pledge, you do several things: You tie yourself to your community, you promise to behave honestly and honorably, and you give your consent to being governed by the rules of the system. Honor and justice connect people in a deep way, allow you to trust your neighbor so that you may effectively work with him or her, and ultimately allow life at the University to be just and free.

Political freedom's great paradox is that people are fully free only under systems of law—because individual freedom atrophies when the strong unimpeded by law rule the weak. John Stuart Mill notes that the purpose of law "is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom."

But law is not sufficient to freedom. Necessary also is a free habit of mind. You cannot be free passively, without thinking and without questioning. You cannot let life wash over you like some great battering wave. During the next four years I hope you will question all you encounter here.

As with all institutions with long histories, the University's culture treasures something like honorable orthodoxies that preserve its past. Convention is useful in this way. But tradition unexamined, unvalidated, can also stifle innovation and free thought. So I hope that right now you are questioning me, questioning some of the orthodoxies I have presented tonight. And in the coming months, in Cabell and Thornton and Rouss, in classrooms and labs and other places where students and faculty gather across these Grounds, I hope you will question your teachers and your fellow students. Discuss and debate. Think hard about important matters.

As you leave this gathering and walk through Thomas Jefferson's green Pythagorean space, first-time students of the University, newly pledged to the responsibilities of this community, please take a moment to consider the motto from the Bible carved into the Cabell Hall pediment: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free." In the activist spirit of Mr. Jefferson, I would like to suggest an amendment: "You shall seek the truth, and in the seeking, you shall be free." You are blessed with many gifts. Use them for good. Be serious. And those who follow you will know that the world was better for having had you in it.

Godspeed.