AEPi Rho Mu

Alan B. Rashkind, '69, J.D. served as keynote speaker for Randolph-Macon College's June 1, 2019 Commencement ceremony at Frank E. Brown Fountain Plaza. Below is Rashkind's speech.

Alan B. Rashkind I have met or interacted with many of you, including those many, many students who were unable to pretend that they didn't hear Barclay when she hollered at them to come into the campus store to meet me. It is a tribute to the affection with which Barclay is held by the students here that not one of you ran away shrieking in horror at being required by her to meet me.

In preparation for this address, I have done a rather extensive survey of prior American college commencement addresses to determine what was, and was not well received. From that survey, three things quickly became clear to me.

1. It is mandatory that an alumnus commencement speaker make comparisons to what his school was like when he attended. 2. It is imperative that the speaker quote from wise and inspirational men and women, such as Churchill, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt; and 3. No group of graduates has ever criticized their commencement speaker for taking too little time to deliver the address.

Mindful of those patterns, I will make the obligatory comparisons; I will try not to take too long up here; and I too will quote well-known authoritative luminaries, in this instance, FDR, Mark Twain and Yogi Berra.

The members of the class of 2019 will be forgiven if they are thinking, what could someone who graduated from R-MC last century, indeed half a century ago, have to say to today's graduates? You might even ask yourself, are the two institutions, the College in 1969 and the College in 2019, the same institution? In some ways, no. Yours is a college of about 1500; ours was just barely more than half that, at about 800. More significantly, yours, thank goodness, is a coed institution. Ours was male only. Indeed, God forbid an unrelated female should be discovered in your dorm room. (In fact, I remember one administrator who literally thought that God did forbid that; something to that effect in Leviticus, I thought he said). But abiding by the prohibition against female visitors was not that hard for me...even my mother was reluctant to come into my dorm room, and looking back, no one could blame her.

The difference in facilities is astounding. In 1969, there was no campus student center, and not one single building named for a Brock, a Birdsong, the Daltons, or an Estes or an Andrews (although we had the advantage of having the actual Dean Andrews as our teacher and mentor). Wash-Frank Hall was unoccupied, and Thomas Branch was occupied, but probably should not have been. Now you probably won't believe this, but there were no phones in dorm rooms, just pay phones in some dorm halls (you've heard of pay phones, right?). By contrast, today each of you walks around with a phone in your hand or pocket, a phone which is actually a computer.

Computers in the 1960s? Yes, they had been invented and yes, the College even had one. And I do mean one...just one. Located in the bottom of Mary Branch. It was the size of a small pickup truck. You input data with punch cards, not on a keyboard. I am told that the computing power of that computer was approximately 1/200,000th of the power of the iPhone X.

Some of the social norms and pursuits of the students, R-MC in 1969 and R-MC in 2019, were equally different. Just for one example, you listen to rap, hip-hop or country music, while we listened to soul music and the Beatles. It occurs to me when harkening back to our music, that the Class of 1969 sang and danced to Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour;" and at the risk of offending some of my classmates, I must admit that some of us rarely see the midnight hour any more. If 60 is the new 40, then 10:30 is the new midnight.

The athletic programs of today are blessed with facilities that my classmates would never have dreamed possible, and we now field very successful women's teams that were not possible prior to the admission of women beginning in the '70s. Yet there is one athletic phenomenon that binds the members of the classes of 1969 and 2019: members of both classes almost NEVER lost to Hampden-Sydney!

So then, if these institutions, the College in 1969 and the College in 2019, are so different, what is it that we have in common other than having attended a school with the same name? The answer: we both attended an institution where an extraordinary teaching faculty, dedicated to a modern liberal arts tradition, prepared us for the future, knowing that no one can accurately predict what challenges the future will hold. And remember, as that legendary wise man, Yogi Berra said, "The future ain't what it used to be." Accounting therefore, the graduates of 2019, and 1969, and every class in between, were all taught to think analytically and critically, and to write and speak well. And that basis in liberal arts, which requires you to be at least conversant in multiple disciplines, is even more important today than it was 50 years ago. In the 1960s, it was thought that the we could plausibly expect to choose one profession, occupation or career, and possibly stay with that through our work life expectancy, often with one benevolent employer or institution. I need not tell you that the continuity of career and employer choice did not last for all of our 50 years since graduation, and is now but a relic of a long bygone era. Given that in just the next few years, you may be in positions that are not imagined today in fields that have not yet been created for employers or institutions that do not yet exist, this type of education is even more valuable today than it was a half century ago. A liberal arts education, delivered by a dedicated faculty, is a guarantee that you will be as well prepared for whatever the future holds as it is possible for you to be. And the better to have experienced that education at an institution whose students have for generations enjoyed a spirit that joins us forever, as fellow Yellow Jackets.

A word here about our faculty. For well over a century, their work with our students has been described as "hand cultivation." Some think that term implies coddling, but those who have attended here know better. Hand cultivation means painstaking attention to each item in the "garden," it implies getting down on hands and knees, hard work. And while I am not an advocate of macho grading, it may be the case that on some few occasions your professors did not give you the grade you expected, or even, at least in your mind, deserved, but if so, just maybe it was because you were not graded on a scale of "good enough" but instead on a scale of "you can do better." Today it may be of little comfort to you to hear me say so, but as a result, I assure you, you will do better! I urge you not to forget to say thank you to your professors and mentors for how hard and well they worked to prepare you.

In passing, I have to say that the education is historically so good at this institution, dare I say so "elite," that a couple of Hollywood actresses and big shot CEOs should have been trying to bribe their children's way into this College! Of course, it wouldn't have worked, we don't take bribes, but they would have gotten the elite educational experience their misguided value system feloniously craved.

So then if your education was so good, and your professors so extraordinary, what is it that I can hope to teach you today? The answer: Not much. But I think I can remind you of some things you should already know but perhaps don't employ often enough. My thoughts perhaps are not profound, not even new, but I submit, quite important as you make your way in, and prepare to take your role as future leaders of a society whose leaders at times may seem to have lost their way.

And before I began, there will be many who will be convinced that some of the advice I am about to give is indirect criticism of a particular political party, one certain office holder, or a few specific societal leaders. I want to assure you, that is not the case. Rather, my remarks contain at least some implied criticism of almost all of them.

So there are four things I would like you to consider doing: Listen well Disagree without being disagreeable Invest in kindness Value service for the benefit of others

1. Listen well. Today, so many of us are not REALLY listening. Not in our instant message, Instagram, breaking news, headline news, Chiron flashing, instant gratification, multi-platform, multi device, limited attention span, attention deficit, disposable society. Giving undivided attention is a lost practice. But it is little wonder though that our attention spans are so short circuited: many people get their information from cable TV news: 3-4 talking heads arguing with and talking over each other while partial sentences crawl across the bottom of the screen, either telling you what the talking heads just meant, or relaying news on an entirely different subject.

So I urge you to try to practice, despite the distraction, listening carefully, and here are a couple of listening pointers. DEMAND that those to whom you pay attention give you more than sound bites, talking points or shorthand answers. By shorthand, I mean the labels we so often use to categorize instead of discuss. Left, right, red, blue, liberal, conservative, pro-life, pro-choice, etc. Focusing on shorthand labels, or the identity of the group from which the speaker comes, curtails rather than allows for meaningful discussion. AND try hard on occasion to listen to those with whom you might not agree. If you only truly listen to those who think as you do, you may never learn anything new. Being sentenced never to learn anything new is my idea of cruel and unusual punishment.

2. Disagree without Being Disagreeable. A most disappointing practice in today's public discourse is the frequency with which our leaders resort to name calling as opposed to statesmanship. Your education empowers you to do better, and as well to insist of our leaders that they do too. If you cannot think of a better argument to support your position than to name call or attach pejorative labels to those who disagree with you, I have some further advice: improve your debating skills, or consider a new position. A third choice is "just shut up," but no respectable commencement speaker would ever offer such advice, so I will not offer you that option.

In essence, I am arguing for civility in all our dealings with each other, even those, especially those, with whom we disagree. When did it become unwelcome, even unsafe, to discuss differences in politics, religion, race or other potentially controversial issues for fear that a fight will break out or offense will be taken? And why did it become so? I submit that it has become so because we have forgotten how to disagree without being disagreeable.

Civility may not come off as sexy, but it is undeniably classy. If more people would try it, I assure you it would foster more meaningful discussions, and possibly, lead the way to more problem solving.

3. Invest in Kindness. Mark Twain, and he was not joking, said, "Kindness can be seen by the blind, and heard by the deaf." Pause for a moment to ponder the power of that observation, the power of mere kindness. Kindness costs you nothing, yet is invaluable to those to whom it is offered. It is so easy to recognize the valuable contributions of others, to thank them for whatever they have done, and to extend a smile or warm greeting to strangers. Now, I am not suggesting you solicit group hugs from strangers on a New York subway; indeed I am not suggesting you solicit group hugs from anyone except those closely related to you or from whom you have written, notarized permission. But think about how often would a smile have soothed a stranger's anxiety in situations where you chose to avoid eye contact.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: "Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough." I submit that works for individuals, peoples, nations and their leaders.

4. Value Service for the Benefit of Others. There is much discussion lately about the extent to which some groups or classifications are said to benefit, and if so, how much, from what's called "privilege." I will not wade into that debate, but I do maintain that today's graduates are privileged, and because of your degree, you have advantages, in terms of career and life choices and all that comes with that.

As you doubtless today focus mostly on the short term future, I hope you will take some time to plan to use the advantages, the privileges you have enjoyed, and will enjoy, to benefit others. Fine if you plan to out-invest Warren Buffett, purchase an NFL team, or start up a low price retail company that becomes a Fortune 500 giant; but what do you plan to do for others? Very few of us can realistically expect Bill Gates-like financial fortune. But each of us can volunteer for a leadership position and spend time and energy for a cause or idea that will help others, privileged or not. Volunteer to do meaningful work at your church, synagogue, Mosque or temple. Take an active role in a service organization, a local Food Bank or other charitable or non-profit organization. Yes, even participate in the political process, as long as you make it your goal to accomplish something other than just getting re-elected. You choose, but whatever you join, whichever position you accept, do it for the right reason, not, as trustee emeritus Whiting Chisman famously decried, joining or accepting a position to pad your obituary. I imagine/hope that each of today's graduates is not giving much thought to an obituary, but I know that every graduate hopes that she or he will go forth from today and be successful. I can guarantee you that if you excel in service for the benefit of others, and I assure you, such excellence is within the grasp of each of you, then you will be extremely successful.

So please, try to remember these four lessons: listen well; disagree without being disagreeable; invest in kindness; and value service for the benefit of others. Do so, and you will make your family, friends, classmates, professors, and yes, your College, all very, very proud of you.

As I conclude today, I take you back not quite 50 years, but more like 43, to paraphrase a line from a classic rock anthem. Randolph-Macon is like the fictional Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. That is because as you check out today, a part of Randolph-Macon will always go with you. And no matter how far you go, a part of you will always remain here, both literally on the walkway you traversed this morning, and as part of the history of this enduring institution. And that's a good thing, because that means not just today, not just tomorrow, but for every day hereafter, for you, it will always be a great day to be a YJ!

Congratulations to the Class of 2019, and thank you.

To watch a video of graduation and see Alan deliver his address click here.

Alan was also featured in the Spring 2019 issue of Randolph Macon Today.

Alan B. Rashkind
Alan B. Rashkind