Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post Columnist George F. Will Delivers “Last Lecture” to Assumption Class of 2021

May 09, 2021

Pulitzer Prize-winning and nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist George F. Will, Ph.D., delivered what he called the “last Assumption lecture for which you will be a captive audience” to the Class of 2021 graduates during the University’s 104th Commencement exercises on Sunday, May 9 at the DCU Center in downtown Worcester. During the ceremony, at which Assumption conferred 393 undergraduate degrees, Will urged the graduates to live in the present while also imagining the past. 

“Mr. Will’s influence as an author, newspaper columnist and journalist, particularly for the Washington Post as well as a political commentator on ABC and MSNBC, cannot be overstated,” said Salutatorian Maeve McDonald ’21 in her introduction of the speaker. “In speaking with Mr. Will about the value of such an education, he noted that, ‘the point of a liberal arts education is to teach you to open your mind to question, not to reject, but to question received opinions.’ He argued that this is a particularly important skill for graduates today as we enter a world that is fraught with political turmoil and moral relativism.”

In his commencement address, Will shared an example of just how one’s liberal education can help one better understand the world. He prompted graduates to consider the political unrest in America and the “mudslinging” against “past Americans who played large roles in the creation and preservation of our nation,” whose statues are being toppled and names scrubbed from public buildings and places for what mudslingers deem moral and political failures.  

“No one says our nation was, or those who passed it on to us, were without sin,” he shared. “Rather, I am here to warn against the sin of pride. This is the sin of those who today so much enjoy rendering harsh judgments against those who acted in earlier days … In harshly judging those who produced our nation, today’s unforgiving critics are guilty of their own sin. It is the sin or presentism.”

Will explained that presentism is “the fallacy of judging by our standards the behavior of those who acted in circumstances very different than ours,” and that the only cure is a deep historical knowledge. “Only such knowledge can give us the ability to imagine what it was like to have been America’s leaders trying to act morally, as we all must try, in situations not of their choosing or of their making,” he said. “What I’m asking for, what I’m pleading for, is imagination. Usually when we speak of imagination, it is prospective imagination, imagination of the future… But what we urgently need now is retrospective imagination. The ability to imagine the past,” he said, adding that we need to reimagine the textures of a time long ago, with social settings, customs, political practices, and institutions and ethical standards much different than we have today.

He asked those in attendance “on this 21st century Sunday morning” to return in their imaginations to 167 years ago when the Kansas Nebraska Act became law. It allowed popular majorities in Kansas and Nebraska to decide whether to permit enslavement. Will asked the audience to imagine the scene as politically engaged Americans in 1954, and asked “What would you have advocated? What would you have done?” 

Will shared that while Lincoln was against enslavement, he was also opposed to allowing the Union to dissolve, which would have called self-government into doubt . He “adopted the ethic of responsibility and committed himself to the patience of politics, to the long path of maneuver and persuasion.” Will said that to understand such dilemmas that politicians confronted in the past requires more than just the grounding of facts in history; it requires imagination and the empathy that imagination can nourish. “Our nation today needs the empathy that can only come from imagination and the ability to imagine oneself in other people’s shoes. The ability to reason, and maneuver, and compromise as they had to do.”
Will called presentism a “pandemic of vindictiveness,” and a pandemic, though not of a virus, but something for which there is no vaccine. “Historically-grounded empathy inoculates us against the sin of pride that is at the cold heart of presentism,” said Will. 

Will said that he hoped that the graduates’ time at Assumption had provided them with two talents that would make them immune to such moral vanity—a talent for gratitude and a talent for praising. “Having gratitude for those men and women in the American past, who, like all of us, were flawed but who nevertheless handed on to us a nation that had fewer flaws than when they inherited it,” he said. “Praising is an act of humility, an act of homage to those who have been in the arena and who have distinguished themselves there.”

He concluded his “final lecture” with an old English couplet: “The couplet is: ’All men are created equal. They differ only in the sequel.’ You are the sequel to this excellent University’s fine touch,” he said. “You will go forth from here and live in the present. But you will, I hope and expect, leave the nation better, because you will avoid presentism. You will do so by appreciating the always crooked road we Americans are always traveling toward a more perfect Union.”

Assumption President Francesco C. Cesareo, Ph.D., also emphasized the enduring importance of a liberal arts education. “While so much changed this past year, what did not change was the essence and value of your Assumption education,” he said. “The pandemic has made more evident the value of the Catholic liberal education you have received in the last four years.  You have come to appreciate that enduring ideas matter and provide a framework for understanding our contemporary world.  You have explored the deepest questions of the human heart, which transcend time and place.” 

President Cesareo added that these questions include understanding the common good, cultivating good judgment and understanding complexity, finding one’s purpose in life, and understanding the responsibilities we have to one another, especially among the most vulnerable. “A Catholic liberal education engages these questions and has prepared you to live out your vocations, professions and to be lifelong learners,” he said. “It has provided you with the wisdom and courage to confront the challenges we face during a time like this and that you will face throughout your life.”

Valedictorian Hannah White ’21 also spoke of Assumption’s emphasis on vocation and its importance as she and her classmates enter “a pandemic-stricken workforce with no guarantee that we’ll find our ideal entry-level job, much less a clear career path,” she said. “Over the past four years we have become familiar with the tagline, “Light the way.” How can we be a light for others when we ourselves cannot see through the darkness of the unknown?”

White shared her experience in the SOPHIA program as one example in how Assumption helps its students understand what it means to choose a vocation. “Our vocations—our life callings— affect all aspects of how we live, work, and engage with the world around us,” she said. “Although we find it difficult to discern our future through the haze of uncertainty, remember this: our life purpose is not some far off goal that will allow us to be happy forever. Vocation is an ever ongoing process of self-discovery. It is living magnanimously, striving for the greatest good, especially in the day to day. It is using what gifts we have to serve others who have nothing. It is living in authentic community with others, where we help each other bear our burdens. Even if our futures are shrouded in darkness, in our vocations we have the light we need to see the next right step.”

In closing, President Cesareo reminded the graduates that they are the first class to graduate from Assumption University, representing a milestone in the history of Assumption. “Throughout its history, Assumption has shown itself to be a resilient institution, overcoming challenges that on the surface seemed insurmountable,” he shared. “This year, you have also shown yourself to be resilient as you adapted to the changes that were necessary as we addressed the impact of the pandemic.  The sacrifices you made have allowed you to grow as a person in ways that were unexpected.  In this way, the pandemic shaped your education as it shaped you as well.  Thank you for the many ways you contributed to making Assumption a better place over the last four years.  As you move on to the next chapter of your journey, I congratulate you on all that you have accomplished as students at Assumption.  We look forward to the many contributions you will make to our society because of your education at your alma mater.”

During the ceremony, Will and Vincent Strully, Jr., founder and CEO of the New England Center for Children, received honorary degrees.  Will was honored for his “steadfast pursuit of knowledge and distinguished commentary [that] has enriched the American media landscape,” while Strully was recognized for his “four decades of selfless service” in which he has dedicated himself to “empowering those in the autism community.”