Vincent Price to the Class of 2019: Seek 'Unhistoric Acts' that Grow the Good

President delivers annual Baccalaureate address

Part of the Commencement Stories 2019 Series
Academic Council Chair Don Taylor leads President Vincent Price in the baccalaureate procession Friday. Photo by Jared Lazarus
Academic Council Chair Don Taylor leads President Vincent Price in the baccalaureate procession Friday. Photo by Jared Lazarus

Good afternoon. To the great class of 2019, let me say congratulations. I don’t want to jinx it, but the outlook is pretty good that you will graduate tomorrow.

To the parents who are with us, congratulations to you as well. I know from experience that “it takes a village” really means “it takes two decades of preparation and four years of worry.”  So, thank you for all you have done for our students.

And to those of you here for convocation, you’re in the right place but about three months too early. Please come back later.

It’s no coincidence that this grand space is modeled on the chapels of the great European universities. When James B. Duke was designing this campus, he wanted it to suggest a history that goes all the way back to the earliest medieval institutions of higher learning. 

So much about the university, from the soaring architecture to these extravagant robes we sometimes wear, is rooted in the Middle Ages—in the guilds of scholars who gathered around libraries where knowledge was preserved for safekeeping during the confusion and unrest of the day. Students studied for entry into the guild and earned degrees granting them access to the wisdom of the library. 

“ Among our special manuscripts you will find some of our most treasured wisdom and the ingredients for some of our most transformative discoveries.”

And while much has changed over the centuries, libraries are still the heart of university life.  You’ve probably spent many an hour in Perkins, Bostock, Lilly, and Rubenstein, thumbing through dusty volumes or frantically searching J-STOR. There is something profound – almost spiritual – about the research breakthrough late at night, when you flip open a book and find exactly the right quote for that paper.

Our libraries are more than stacks and carrels, or study rooms and digital collections: they also contain a wealth of archival materials. Among our special manuscripts you will find some of our most treasured wisdom and the ingredients for some of our most transformative discoveries.

So, when I set out to prepare these remarks, I followed your lead and went searching for just the right quote for my assignment. 

Predictably, I found much to consider, from voices speaking through and across the ages. 

Take for instance the 16th century Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius. Duke owns one of the few first editions of Vesalius’s landmark 1543 anatomy tract, On the Fabric of the Human Body, which serves as the basis of much of modern medical science and biology.

In and among hundreds of pretty gruesome anatomical engravings, you can find some advice that is useful even today.  Vesalius urges us to ground our understanding of the world in what we directly experience, to challenge what is authoritatively handed down with what we ourselves see to be true. 

He wants you to claim your own understanding of the world; indeed, the medieval physician derisively describes sitting through a boring – and in his view, quite mistaken – lecture at the University of Louvain in the early 1500s – his fellow students scribbling notes, quote, “with accuracy in proportion to their interest.”

I guess not much has changed in 500 years.

Or take the 18th century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.  Duke has, remarkably, an inscribed 1773 first edition of poems by Wheatley.  She was a slave for most of her life – entirely self-educated – but her poetry was celebrated throughout colonial America and England and is still studied and read widely today.

This is one of our most treasured assets -- the first book published by an African American author, released two years before the first shots of the American Revolution and nine decades before Emancipation.

What might Wheatly have written that speaks to you, today?  Well, in a poem to new graduates at Harvard, she called on them to raise their sights,  and challenged them to make the most of what they had learned, to literally reach for the sky: “Students, to you ‘tis given to scan the heights above; To traverse the ethereal space, and mark the systems of revolving worlds.”

So, Wheatly spoke eloquently of the power and impact of outrageous ambition long before it became associated with Duke.

Many such voices of the past can be heard, speaking to your future from the quiet corners of the library, if you choose to listen.   You can find here the very scrap of paper where Walt Whitman first worked out a few famous lines for his life’s work, Leaves of Grass, in the middle 19th century. His words are crossed out, underlined, scribbled – until he finally arrives at this: “Youth is full of grace, force, fascination … but old age will come after you, with equal grace, force, fascination.” 

“So, here’s what we have heard on the eve of your commencement: set out to understand the world for yourself, advises Vesalius; with all that you have been given, aim high, implores Wheatly; and from Whitman, accept the grace of aging as you have the exuberance of youth.”

Your parents can confirm that this is true.

So, here’s what we have heard on the eve of your commencement: set out to understand the world for yourself, advises Vesalius; with all that you have been given, aim high, implores Wheatly; and from Whitman, accept the grace of aging as you have the exuberance of youth.

But of all these treasured voices, there is one speaking most eloquently through the generations, as though she were here, with us in this Chapel: the great Victorian writer Mary Ann Evans, also known as George Eliot.

As the English majors among you probably know, Duke owns a first edition of her classic novel, Middlemarch, which was published in eight installments in 1871 and 1872.  You can go to the Rubenstein Library and hold the volumes in your hands, serial paperbacks that have advertisements for patent medicines and long-forgotten London bookstores inside the back cover. Our librarians will give you a pair of gloves to turn the frail and browning pages.

And from those pages, Eliot speaks with unparalleled beauty and wisdom.   One line in particular, from her famous conclusion, sticks with me, and I hope speaks to you: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.”

While commencement is a time when you are exhorted to strive for knowledge, to reach for the heavens, to leave your mark on history, I suggest we listen to the truth expressed here – the unhistoric acts can make all the difference.

To be sure, the class of 2019 has been responsible for more than your share of Duke history: winning ACC championships, opening the Ruby, earning scholarships and awards, and building a world-record electric vehicle. But you’ve also “grown the good” at Duke in countless ways that never got reported in Duke Today or The Chronicle.  

You’ve grown the good by staying up late to help a classmate who was struggling with a physics problem set.  You’ve grown the good by collecting trash on the paths in Duke Forest. You’ve grown the good by helping a heartbroken friend through a rough patch, by looking out for a first-year who is homesick, and by spending a Saturday morning grouting tile at Duke’s Habitat house.  

Even by holding open the door of the library for that colleague whose hands are full of books: It can be as simple as a smile, a kind word, an extended hand, or any of a million small ways of saying “I see you; I support you; I appreciate you.”

You know, we talk about preparing students for leadership in the world, but this doesn’t necessarily mean turning you into world leaders. It means inspiring you to have the courage to take full advantage of your gifts, by giving them to others every day, and becoming more fully realized versions of the person you want to be.

President Price greets students outside of Duke Chapel following baccalaureate. Photo by Jared Lazarus
Some of you in this room might change history. It’s possible that sitting among you is a future President, a famous artist, a CEO, perhaps a Nobel laureate, the discoverer of the cure for cancer.  And if you loved your time in Rubenstein, perhaps one of you will direct the Library of Congress or the Bodleian at Oxford.

But a great many of us will lead what from the outside may seem like more ordinary lives – as elementary school teachers, community doctors, advocates for immigrants, and devoted parents.  And these too will be great and good lives.

Duke’s greatest aspiration is to give you the curiosity and conviction to make the ordinary extraordinary in whatever you do.  Just as in your time at Duke, opportunities for these unhistoric acts abound. Seek them out.

You’ve already grown the good on our campus these past four years. And as you set off tomorrow once and for all, as you step through the gates into life after Duke, it will be into a world that I know will likewise be forever changed by the great class of 2019.

Cheers, and congratulations.