May 18, 2018

Batten's Jeff Bergner: A Professor's Advice to the 2018 Graduates

Editor’s note: This column is adapted from a final lecture to graduating fourth-year students at Batten. Bergner teaches classes on U.S. national security policy. (This column is in The Virginian-Pilot and is posted with permission.

——

First, some good news. You are all very talented. You have the intellectual ability to succeed at pretty much whatever you choose to do. If you do not succeed, it will not be for want of intelligence.

Now, some harder news. You are all good rule followers. By following the rules, you did well in high school and were accepted at UVA. By following the rules, you succeeded here and will soon graduate. Though more open than high school, your college experience was still carefully structured. For example, you could choose your own major area of study. But once you did, you were required to take core courses, to pass a minimum number of courses and to participate in this capstone course.

It has been my experience that you are always looking for the rules. Once you learn them, you feel confident. Assignments, readings, papers and exams are usually all spelled out in your course syllabus.

When you leave here, however, you will leave all these rules behind. There is no course syllabus to which you can turn to answer the big questions you will confront: What career should you pursue? Should you go back to school? Should you marry? Should you have children, and if so, how many? Should you buy a house or rent? Will you choose to serve your community, the commonwealth or the nation? How important is money? How will you address spiritual questions?

When you leave here, however, you will leave all these rules behind. There is no course syllabus to which you can turn to answer the big questions you will confront: What career should you pursue? Should you go back to school? Should you marry? Should you have children, and if so, how many? Should you buy a house or rent? Will you choose to serve your community, the commonwealth or the nation? How important is money? How will you address spiritual questions?

There may be people who can offer you advice (your parents, for example), but you are fundamentally on your own. You may experience a nagging uncertainty as you seek out rules which are not spelled out as clearly and precisely as they have been in college. It is how you make these and other important choices, not your native intelligence, that will shape the arc of your life.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with uncertainty; without it, you will never expand your imagination and become the person you can be. Hopefully college has helped you see this. In a final effort to be helpful—my last shot at you, so to speak—let me commend to you four conclusions from my own experience.

First, whatever you choose to do, go all in. Five years from now, you will probably not recall a single fact your professors imparted to you. But you will remember what you learned when you put yourself into your papers and class presentations. There’s a big difference between listening to someone else talk and taking responsibility for something yourself. If opportunities arise, seize them. Be a person who steps up. Be less afraid of sins of commission than sins of omission.

Second, the old saw that knowledge is power is very true. It is fashionable these days to say that you don’t have to know anything, just how to think. But I have never understood what you can think about if you don’t know anything about which to think. People who contribute to our store of useful knowledge invariably immerse themselves in problems earlier thinkers have left to them. Immerse yourself in the literature and practices of your chosen field; learn the facts, the precedents and the problems that still need to be addressed.

Third—and this may sound quaint to you—be honest, both with yourself and with others. I could make for you a long philosophical argument about why you should be honest. Today, let me make an easier, more pragmatic argument. You may advantage yourself once or twice by being dishonest, but you are unlikely to do so indefinitely. And when your luck runs out, the consequences will be far worse. I could offer you many painful examples from my long experience with Washington officials.

Fourth, be tolerant and open. Here is some more good news: Your generation seems to be very tolerant and open when it comes to issues of gender, race and ethnicity, and religion. These have been fault lines throughout history and the source of considerable oppression and violence. If indeed micro-aggressions remain, these are—as the name implies—far less significant than macro-aggressions.

Your generation, however, still needs to develop a comparable tolerance and openness about political views. This will be especially important when you have gained a measure of power and authority over others—as a boss, a military commander, a teacher, a political leader or a university professor. At the close of the constitutional convention in 1787, Benjamin Franklin said that the final draft might not please any delegate in every single particular. But he counseled delegates to “doubt a little of your own infallibility.” This is still excellent advice.

Finally, have some fun along the way. Your natural, youthful idealism will press you to make the world a better place.

But the world was imperfect when you came into it and it will be imperfect when you leave it. Do your best to make the world better, but don’t try to compel it to mirror your ideas in every particular. This will make you permanently unhappy.

But the world was imperfect when you came into it and it will be imperfect when you leave it. Do your best to make the world better, but don’t try to compel it to mirror your ideas in every particular. This will make you permanently unhappy.

Remember what Franklin said, and leaven your hope for what should be changed with a sense of gratitude for what you have.

——

Jeff Bergner

Lecturer, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

(photo courtesy of The Virginian-Pilot)