A Graduation In Full

June 1, 2002

 

Award-wining journalist and author Tom Wolfe told Duke's newest graduates 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." At the May 13 graduation exercises marking the beginning of that safari, degrees were conferred on 1,608 undergraduates and 1,956 graduate and professional-school students. The Wallace Wade Stadium crowd numbered more than 15,000.

Wolfe, the author of such acclaimed books as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and, more recently, A Man in Full, expanded on one of his familiar themes--status in American society. "Fifteen minutes from now," he said, "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 Americans down into classes in the old European sense. But there is a... dividing line, and above that line are those people 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."

Based on today's standards, Wolfe said, Thomas Edison would be a computer repairman, famed test pilot 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 graduating seniors, said students had been trained to be the leaders of an extraordinary nation at an extraordinary time. "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 nineteenth 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."

In awarding Wolfe an honorary doctor of literature degree, President Nannerl O. Keohane said, "Your career has been a fabulous exhibition of wit and insight.... At The New York Herald-Tribune, you were encouraged by your editor, Duke graduate Clay Felker, to explore a new journalism, which, as you have described it, aims to be 'absolutely truthful and yet have the absorbing quality of fiction.'"

John Chandler B.D. '52, Ph.D. '54, former president of Williams College and of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, received an honorary doctor of laws degree. Keohane noted that the association's current president called Chandler, also a Duke trustee emeritus, "the embodiment of intellectual and ethical commitments that liberal education stands for." One of his enduring initiatives--which enlisted Duke from the start--has paired graduate students at research universities with faculty at liberal-arts colleges.

Shmuel Eisenstadt, the Rose Isaacs Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was given an honorary doctor of humane letters degree. "Long before it became conventional to think in terms of global forces," according to the citation, "you were applying a comparative-studies approach and doing influential research on Jewish, Japanese, and European cultures." A sociologist known to be a synthesizer and a bridge-builder to other disciplines, Eisenstadt has given several seminars at Duke.

Another doctor of humane letters went to Eleanor Elliott; her father, James A. Thomas, was a close friend of university founder James B. Duke and contributed an extensive collection of books dealing with the Far East. Elliott, a longtime supporter of Women's Studies at Duke, has chaired the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and was, for many years, a trustee of Barnard College, her alma mater. Barnard College president Judith Shapiro, quoted by Keohane, described her as "a perfect embodiment of what we call the 'Barnard Woman': courageous, independent, hard-working, and deep-thinking."

Beyond receiving a doctor of laws degree from Keohane, U.S. Representative John R. Lewis received a standing ovation from the crowd. At the height of the civil-rights era, Lewis joined the Freedom Rides to help challenge segregation across the South, chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and was one of the planners for the historic March on Washington. He led the first march in Selma, Alabama, that became known as "Bloody Sunday," following a violent confrontation with the police at the Edmund T. Pettus Bridge. Referring to Lewis' charge to young people to help mold America into a single community, Keohane said, "Few took on that obligation more seriously or strenuously than you."