"Coming Back to Grounds" - Dean Ian Baucom Addresses the Virginia Alumni Mentoring Dinner

Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
Dan Addison / University Communications

Jan. 12, 2015 at Alumni Hall, Charlottesville, Virginia

Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
Ian Baucom, Buckner W. Clay Dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences
Dan Addison / University Communications

Welcome back to Grounds. It’s encouraging to see so many students here tonight, rested and renewed. As we gather together, on this first day of the spring 2015 term, I do not need to recount last semester’s tragedies, the trials and challenges that shook this University and all who hold it dear. But I do want to note, as a still-relative newcomer to this great university, how profoundly inspired I have been by the students – by your – committed, thoughtful and ethical responses to the grievous events that have tied us all together in our shared purpose for the future of this place.

Whether it was your emotional outpouring in response to the senseless killing of Hannah Graham; or your compassionate mourning in the loss of your other dear classmates; or your unflinching resolve to affirm the deep good and transformational power of this university in the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s discredited article; or your commitment to do so precisely by shouldering the challenge of becoming national student-leaders in the country-wide imperative of confronting and refusing sexual violence, you have weathered the sorrow and tumult of last semester with dignity, determination, and a striking resolution not to walk away from this difficult time but to learn from it, and to make the years ahead better because of it – for yourselves and for all of us.

So I want to begin my comments by applauding and honoring you with the recognition you deserve. I am proud of you. I am proud and honored to be your Dean. You belong to a great university, with a unique and extraordinary tradition in the life of this country. We are proud that you are the generation to bring that tradition, that enduring promise of what a university can be, into U.Va.’s third century. You have already proven your capacity to be Cavaliers of our best, common future. I thank you for that.

For the alumni among us here tonight, I also thank you for taking the time to come back and share your experiences with our students. No matter how long you have been away, it probably did not take much time to flash back to your own undergraduate experiences as you swapped stories over dinner with students eager to discover how to navigate what awaits them after they graduate, or to remember all the enduring promises of our common good that have tied you to this place. You also have my deepest gratitude.

To whichever of those groups you belong – whether you are a current undergraduate; a recent or long-time alum; or, like me, the fairly new Dean of the College – let me underscore one key thing: we all have something in common. Today, as the semester begins, we are all coming back to Grounds. We may stand at different stages in our adult lives, but that experience of returning to Grounds, that experience of becoming not just inhabitants but citizens of these Grounds, unites us. It is that common truth of being grounded together that I want to talk with you about tonight.

I do so mindful that the first public talk I gave as your Dean – in mid-August, to the incoming first-year class of College students on the day before the first day of courses – was about daring to become something new. It was about embarking on an unprecedented journey of discovery and personal reinvention, fusing together the cultural and personal backgrounds we all carry to Grounds with U.Va.’s history of traditions and academic values to create something entirely new.

But what happens after you’ve moved beyond those first steps of discovering your new path in this place? After that first moment of arrival? That first week of being here? That first amazing semester? Something else begins to occur. You leave, and then you come back. And then you do that again, and again. You leave every summer to return in the fall. And then you leave every winter to return in the spring. And then you do that again, and again. As you do so, you will find yourself enacting something profoundly meaningful built into the very idea these university Grounds exist to bring into our lives: something fundamental to the very idea of this historic place.

The Greek word “nostos” is used in Homer’s Odyssey to refer to Odysseus’ epic journey home after a grand voyaging out to ask the question of his identity after so many years away. Your education here carries a pattern of such returns, and such questioning, and with each return, your perspective on what awaits you on Grounds shifts. Your first moment here, moving into a first-year residence hall, is a radically new experience. From there, between semesters and after summer breaks, you typically experience seven distinct “returns” to U.Va. Gradually, over the course of your four years, those returns no longer feel like a voyage away from home. They become a voyage to home. What was once new territory and what you first encountered as “the Grounds” gradually become your Grounds, your home. What was at first the sign of everything that is new in you, in contrast to everything that is grounded about you, stop being opposite terms. The two concepts intertwine: newness becomes your grounds, and being grounded in these Grounds becomes your source of ever-being-new.

That is the great, enduring genius of a residential liberal arts College education, something no online courses can ever match: that cyclical routine of going out and coming back, until the poles have reversed and what we once saw as a place of arrival, a place of newness and discovery, becomes our new home ground, our place of return – whoever we are: students or professors, deans or alumni.

*          *          *

Well enough, but what more exactly does that mean? Here we are, returning to Grounds. Since the last time we all reconvened, this past August, so much that is aching, and so much that is difficult, has happened. What can we learn from being back here in the midst of all those tempests? What do these Grounds ground?

What do they nourish?

What do they, and the liberal arts for which they stand, have to teach?

I cannot give you definitive answers. That is essential to what is challenging and to what is vital about a liberal arts education.

With all the insight of all the great faculty of this amazing place, we are not here to answer these questions for you. We are here to equip you – in your chosen vocations, in your acts of citizenship – for wrestling with the greatest and most difficult questions of purpose, meaning, and possibility that will come before you over the next five, 10, even 50-or-more years of your lives.
The alumni mentors who are with us tonight are, as fully as your faculty teachers, sources for answering those questions. They are the living embodiment of what a liberal arts education has to teach and the grounds it provides for the life you are about to be called to live, nobly and well.

As I affirm that, I do want to offer one insight on how this tradition of education can ground you – and all of us – in that endless act of ethical, imaginative, and historical wrestling the liberal arts represents. That insight is drawn from the vocabulary of classical Italian and Florentine political thought on which Thomas Jefferson drew, not only in crafting the Declaration of Independence, but in wedding himself to the conviction that the future of the great experiment in democracy that is America depends for its well-being on creating, for the republic, a university. That university is our university. The university built from the conviction that a democracy cannot exist without a free and educated citizenry. That is the idea at the heart and core of the University of Virginia. That is the profound idea we are constantly called on both to conserve and to make new.

As we do so, we can refer to a set of terms of which Jefferson would have been mindful: a set of terms balancing the concepts of virtù and fortuna, two opposing properties dating back to ancient Greek and republican Roman thought.  In either of those traditions, virtù is defined not in an individual moral sense, but as the civic virtue of citizens empowered to forego their private, individual interests in order to pursue the common good through concerted and collective effort. Opposed to this public virtù or common good is fortuna, the whims of fate characterized by the turning wheel of the Roman goddess of fortune capable of laying waste to human hopes and dreams. In the classic theories of the state on which Jefferson drew, the noblest projects of collective life motivated by virtù remain vulnerable to these cruel twists of fate.

As these past months have taught us, there is nothing ancient or outmoded about this idea. Nor is there anything outdated, in times of such constant buffeting, about rearticulating and recommitting ourselves to all that is best in our collective lives. In seeking that, in searching for and celebrating the good in our community, in fiercely fighting for the good that is the good of U.Va., we must believe one thing: that in the battle of virtù and fortuna, virtù will win; that our common commitment to the public good will exceed the buffeting winds of fate.

For that principle of virtù to win, it must nourish itself on another core principle of the liberal arts, a principle inherent in the notion of liber from which the idea of the liberal arts descends: the principle of the free, equal, and unfettered exchange of thought, expression, discovery and opinion on which the common good depends.

In our commitment to the triumph of virtù over the winds of fate, that is our key ground. That conviction that our shared well-being is grounded in the absolutely free play of thoughts and ideas; that conviction that what most secures us within this academical village is the freedom of thought to roam wherever it will. This too is the secret of the beauty and the difficulty of the liberal arts. This too is the value of a College education – this grounding in freedom, this second reversal of poles through which the freer your thought, the more grounded you will be; this recognition that the greater the extension of educated free thought within a society, the more securely that society will stand against the winds of fortune, no matter how hard they blow.

Over the past week, as we have witnessed in France a murderous attack on this principle, we have been reminded that we must be ever more committed to defending that undaunted idea of freedom at the heart of university, social, and political life. But that is not enough. As the great, fearless and joyful tradition of the liberal arts also teaches us, we must be equally committed to defending freedom of religion and, in this case, more particularly still, to defending those great and multiple life-honoring traditions of secular and Islamic thought travestied by the attacks in Paris.

Within the coming year, we will be launching a new curricular initiative to help guide students in the College through their general education requirements. Core to that initiative will be a set of courses organized around a big, complex idea, including a cluster of courses on concepts of the good: concepts of what the good is if we begin with moral philosophy, or instead with bioethics, or with the history of religion, or with foreign, economic, or environmental policy. All those notions of the good are vital, but they do not necessarily line up or agree with one another. The purpose of studying them at a university is not to convince you that only one is right. It is to equip you for a life of engaged citizenship and purposeful vocation in which you will make your own final decisions: and you will make them better because you have been free to think, and question, and approach this complex world from a multitude of perspectives from which to ground your own ultimate convictions. That also is the promise of the liberal arts education we seek to offer you here, on these Grounds.

*          *          *

Let me conclude with some thoughts about a poem I first read when I was around the age of most of you in this room. It’s a brief lyric entitled “Antaeus,” by the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. I was an undergraduate when I first encountered the text, which takes its title from the name of a giant in Greek mythology who drew his strength and power from being in direct contact with the soil from which he sprang.

Every time Antaeus was knocked down in a brawl and appeared to be beaten, he rose again, recharged by his contact with the earth. Only Hercules solved the riddle of how to defeat the mighty Antaeus, determining that the only way to overcome the giant was to shun pinning him down and, instead, to hold him overhead, separating Antaeus from the source of his strength.

Over the long course of the history of their encounter, over centuries of literary accounts of this story, Hercules has always been known as the hero of this fight. How can he not be? He is Hercules, and much of what we want and hope for you is in his image. To exceed everything imaginable. To encounter and surpass a great and often unimaginable set of challenges strewn in your life’s path. To be Herculean.

You can be. You will be.

Heaney, one of nine children from a poor farming family in Northern Ireland, certainly went on to achieve such amazing things. What’s remarkable about the poem however, and the key reason it has stayed with me over the decades, is that Heaney does not write from Hercules’ but from Antaeus’ perspective. He extolls the astonishing power that comes from staying connected to the ground even as he acknowledges that the greatest power of being grounded comes from wrestling with something new, something from the outside and the beyond. “When I lie on the ground,” as the poem begins in Antaeus’ voice,

I rise flushed as a rose in the morning.
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
To rub myself with sand.

That is operative
As an elixir. I cannot be weaned
Off the earth's long contour, her river-veins.
Down here in my cave

Girded with root and rock
I am cradled in the dark that wombed me
And nurtured in every artery
Like a small hillock.

Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas:
He must wrestle with me before he pass
Into that realm of fame

In a speech delivered during a celebration of his 70th birthday, Heaney offered a gloss on the poem. Despite all the international laurels that had been heaped on him,  he said that he continued to identify with Antaeus because he saw himself as “something of an earthman, somebody with his poetic feet very much on the local ground.”

From that perspective he is able to confirm one more paradox: that it is precisely in identifying with Antaeus that we are so often capable of accomplishing the Herculean: “We are made” Heaney continues, “to live in at least two places at one time, in two domains that march each other…We should keep our feet on the ground to signify that nothing is beneath us, but we should also lift up our eyes to say nothing is beyond us.”

It is that deep paradox which I so profoundly love about the poem: that sense that the skyward is not opposed to the grounded but comes, surprisingly, from it; that affirmation that we have to be in touch with the ground, and to wrestle with everything on the ground, in order to know that nothing beyond the ground is beyond us. The parable by now is obvious. This is what I have come to feel and understand about these Grounds at U.Va.: this place that offers to make you new and to which you will constantly return to recover yourself; this place that is a ground of security against fortune because it is and must remain utterly free; this place that will launch you into the heights and into a life in which nothing is beyond you – precisely to the extent that you stay grounded in it.

As we welcome back so many alumni tonight, I urge you to learn from them. Keep returning. Keep coming back to your Grounds. Your source, and your strength, and your ground to ever becoming new for the future you are about to shape is here.