By MARTY MORRISON / University of Mary Washington
University of Richmond President Emeritus Edward Ayers encouraged University of Mary Washington graduates to capitalize on an uncertain future.
He talked about tumultuous times in American history, where the country’s residents could never have predicted events such as the devastation caused by the Civil War.
“Americans could not have foreseen a war that over the next four years killed the equivalent of 8 million people today,” said Ayers, who addressed more than 5,000 students, family and friends on Ball Circle during the University’s 106th undergraduate commencement ceremony Saturday, May 13. Neither could they have realized that the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world would come to an end, he said.
He reflected on UMW’s Fredericksburg campus, where history played such a vital role. “Confederate cannons occupied the very ground on which we are gathered,” said Ayers, a historian of the American South. On the same site on which the University was founded, more than 12,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured trying to take the ridge overlooking the city.
“You can’t look out across at all of you and be at this place without thinking that sometimes history brings redemption,” said Ayers, “to see this very piece of land that people fought about so desperately is now the scene of such a wonderful ceremony.”
Today, we are surprised by the unpredictable events of the 21st century.
“If we measure those years by political events, economic events, international events, or cultural events, things seem chaotic,” he said. “It’s hard for everyone, including young people, to get their bearings.”
The fact is, we always live in unusual times, said Ayers. While some years are better than others financially or politically, the future always moves in unforeseen ways.
“The only law of history I’ve been able to discover is that the unexpected, good and bad, always happens,” said Ayers, who served as University of Richmond’s ninth president from 2007 to 2015. “The unexpected always happens, so get used to it – or, even better, bring it about yourself. That’s a reason for anxiety, but it’s also reason for hope.”
History lives within us as much as we live within history.
“You are woven into the time and space that you share with the people with whom you sit. That’s why you are the class of 2017,” said Ayers, who currently serves as University of Richmond’s Tucker-Boatwright professor of the humanities. “It matters when you were here. You always will be a part of this moment because you live in history.”
At Mary Washington, he said, graduates have learned to deal with complexity in all its forms, knowing solutions are not often simple. They’ve learned how to deal with the ambiguity that justice and wisdom aren’t always clearly defined. They’ve learned how to deal with people whose beliefs are different from their own, and they’ve learned that people are as complex and as full of surprise as they are.
Today’s graduates also have learned that the world is full of possibilities, Ayers said. The future can be better than the past.
“The world responds to effort, goodwill and knowledge,” he said, all attributes graduates have gained during their academic careers at the University of Mary Washington.
He congratulated the Class of 2017.
“I feel better about the world knowing that you are going out to make your own history.”