Author Tom Wolfe Tells Duke's Graduating Seniors That Their Future Is Bright

Tom Wolfe

DURHAM, N.C. - Award-winning journalist and author Tom Wolfe told graduating seniors at Duke University on Sunday that, contrary to what many pundits may say, their future is bright. "It's not a jungle out there. It's more of a honeymoon safari," Wolfe said. More than 3,500 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees were awarded at the annual commencement ceremony before a crowd of more than 15,000 on a sunny Mother's Day morning in the university's Wallace Wade football stadium. Wolfe was one of five to receive honorary degrees. The others were former Williams College President John Wesley Chandler, sociologist Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, civic leader Eleanor Thomas Elliott and U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John R. Lewis. Wolfe, the author of such acclaimed books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), The Right Stuff (1979), The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and, most recently, A Man in Full (1998), told the graduating students that "15 minutes from now, you will join one of the only two definable social classes in America. There are, of course, all sorts of gradations of status, of power, of wealth, influence and comfort, but it is impossible to break America down into classes in the old European sense. "But there is a ... dividing line, and above that line are those who have bachelor degrees or better from a four-year college or university. Below that are the people who don't. That line is becoming a gulf that grows wider and wider. "Like the rest of the West, we live in a highly bureaucratic world and it's impossible today to advance to the heights of ambition without that bachelor's degree, without being a part of what Vance Packard used to call 'the diploma elite.'" Based on today's standards, Wolfe said, Thomas Edison would be a computer repairman, Chuck Yeager would clean jet engine intakes and Microsoft wouldn't consider hiring Bill Gates. "He'd have to found the company," Wolfe said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. Wolfe, whose daughter Alexandra was among the Duke graduating seniors, spoke eloquently and humorously about America's past and future. "For the last four years, you have been trained to be the leaders of an extraordinary nation. There has never been anything like it. ... It is the only country I know of in which immigrants with a totally different culture, a totally different language, can in one-half of a generation, if they have the numbers and a modicum of organization, take over politically a metropolis as large as, say, Miami. "It is the old dreams of the utopian socialists of the 19th century -- that the common working man would somehow have the free time, the political freedom, the wherewithal to express himself in any way he saw fit -- that has come here, not in any socialist nation, but in the United States. "It is, on every level, an astounding country. I'm not the first person to ever say this, but America is a wonderful country and I only ask one thing of you -- lead her well." Degrees were conferred to 1,608 undergraduates and 1,956 graduate and professional school students, including those who completed their degree programs last September and December. Timothy Saintsing, who received a master's degree in public policy, presented the student address. Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane, who presided over the ceremony, told the graduating students at its conclusion: "You go forth with our admiration, our affection, our encouragement and our faith in your ability to shape our future." For more information about Duke's 2002 commencement, visit http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/grad2002/main.htm.

Note to editors: An audio recording of the address is available on the Web at http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/radio/wolfe.wav. A photo of Wolfe (shown above) is available at here. A text of the Baccalaureat address by Duke President Nannerl O. Keohane is available at http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/speeches/bacc2002.htm.