Doing Good By Knowing What You Are Doing

Honor’s Convocation

Chicago Hall, Saint Paul’s College


William B. Allen

Director, State Council of Higher Education for Virginia

Lawrenceville, Virginia

April 14, 1999

Thank you President Law.  And permit me to thank the trustees, faculty, and student body, for including me on this wonderful occasion.  There was a time when I imagined that our culture was losing its capacity to honor and be honored.  Every small contribution to re-establishing that litmus of civilization emboldens me to ask for more still.  This little College with a large tradition contains more potential to set the tone of higher education in Virginia and beyond than many another institution.  And I am thrilled to bring my pleas before you, in the act of giving witness to your high deserts.

I join with Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in telling you that the “world will little note nor long remember what we say here today.”  But I have no doubt whatever that the world should long remember the high efforts that have brought you thus far.  Your story has inspired my topic today, “doing good by knowing what you’re doing.”  And I want to dive right into it.

First of all, do no harm. 

There is perhaps no more awe inspiring professional ethic.  This foundation of the Hippocratic Oath tells us more than that benevolence is a guiding star of human regard for other humans.  It speaks not only to intentions that are well founded but also to the standards of knowledge and understanding that must inform the best intentions.  To gain confidence that in any endeavor affecting other human beings one’s effort will do no harm, one must also attain knowledge sufficient to warrant such confidence.

Even before I speak to you on this solemn occasion of the honor that justifies this annual gathering and that characterizes your accomplishments at St. Paul’s College, I am mindful of this powerful oath—not because I have any reservations about your intentions but because I am much aware of the ends to which we dedicate learning.  We seek to learn most of all in order to strengthen capacities to do good.  We act on the assumption that we understand that goodness is the offspring of knowledge.

My life is now intertwined with yours.  As Director of the Council of Higher Education I am every moment aware that my actions bear importantly on your chances for success.  I am determined that I, no less than your physician, shall adhere to the maxim, “do no harm.”  But it shall not be good enough for me, at the end of my time in Virginia, to say that I did no harm.  I must also be able to say that I did not harm while trying to do good.  Honor testifies to our efforts to do good, just as the Hippocratic oath testifies to our oath to do no harm.  What I shall do shall affect you.  It means the world to me to assure that I answer to both moral imperatives.

You know little of this life that is now a part of your own. You know neither how I came to form such moral convictions, nor how I have fared in the crucible of human trials that test them.  You do not know, for example, that I was married for twenty-nine years and enjoyed a marriage that succeeded in raising two wonderful children.  You do not know that I am now divorced.  Those facts constitute an important part of the life that is now intertwined with yours.  Those facts bear upon your lives, however, by means of the character and understanding that has had to live and bear them.  For example, at the time that I married I loved my wife most deeply, as I still do.  Moreover, nothing seemed to me so awful than the very notion of divorce, let alone the prospect of having to undergo it myself. Still, that unhappiness forms a part of my experience.  My intention, in other words, has been quite other than my experience.  Yet, it remains true that I revere my marriage, bearing the standard of those twenty-nine years no less proudly than I would have done the fifty years for which I yearned.  I ran as far as I could even if I could not run as far in the race as I yearned to run.  Though I account the divorce a sadness, and yes, a failure, I do not count it a defeat.  For I rely still upon the conviction that I deserved success.

It is altogether conceivable that ignorance is what accounts for the gap between experience and intention.  But it requires only a little learning to come to appreciate that.  However knowledge informs action, there is no knowledge sufficient to ward off every eventuality, whether from chance or from the diversity of human sentiments and understandings.  Or, to put the matter more concretely, we will sometimes do harm to others even when we try hardest to avoid doing any harm.  There are none of the human frailties that mere knowledge alone can improve upon.  For we are fallible and will err even in our best moods.

Why, then, do we celebrate distinctive accomplishments with honor, if we know that our actions are often as nearly sad failures as they are happy successes?  We celebrate them to foster our resolve.  With Abraham Lincoln, we believe that what counts in human life is far more the honor deserved than the honor received.  When we have so conducted ourselves as to deserve honor, no degree of failure can tarnish the honor we shall have earned.  Nor will unhappy consequences do so, for personal happiness is not the standard of honor.  Before we celebrate your successes, therefore, let us recall that it is far less the accomplishment or the success than the effort you have brought to it that qualifies you for this honor.  So it was with the brave few at Thermopylae, the dozen or so Spartans who warded off the thousands of Xerxes until finally those brave few fell.  Their honor lay not in their success (though they purchased precious time for the Greeks) but in their sacrifice.

No one can reflect upon the honors won by the Spartan soldiers without recognizing that there is some tension between honor and mere personal happiness.  When happiness becomes not the reward of a life well lived but the immediate goal of our every exertion, we are least of all likely to embrace self-sacrifice in an hour of need.  Yet, what would the mother be who could not give her life itself for the sake of her child?  Nor could a mother capable of such sacrifice ever be regarded as thinking nothing more important than personal enjoyments.  In this case we behold the true measure of honor: it results from those attainments (or at least the efforts to reach them) by which we measure not our own happiness but the excellences before which we bow. Honor we behold clearly only when we revolve it in the light of human ends greater than ourselves.  Because there is never any shame in seeking ends greater than ourselves, we may win honor even when we fail of our goal.  It is the goal we seek that distinguishes our effort.  It is the sacrifice we are willing to make that secures our effort.

Nor should honor be confused with fame.  While honor brings good reputation, good reputation does not bring honor.  As a youth perhaps more nerdy than desired, I avoided the attentions of honor and reputation, on the fear that it was a kind of contemptible braggadocio.  Eventually I learned, however, that one can scarcely become meaningfully human without being moved by the desire for honor.  For to be so moved is to bow before the claims of human excellence as a test of one’s own right to exist.  Honor invokes those aspects of the soul that tamp out the distractions of mere enjoyments.  To that extent it needs no fame to maintain its claim.  When it does in fact win fame, as you in a small way do here today, that gives testimony only that humanity cannot fail to be compelled by honor.  The Spartan soldiers won fame not by seeking it but by being truly Spartan.  Perhaps they failed to stop the Persians, but they did not fail to uphold the virtue of Sparta.

In the same manner, let us then recognize all of the efforts that deserve honor on this occasion, including those that did not eventuate in mentioned prizes.  Many folk have listened to me urge upon Virginia higher education heightened standards of accomplishments.  In fact, what I have urged is that we should take a cue from athletics, in which we habitually push individuals to the point of failure in order to take the measure of their abilities.  Our champions work hardest and longest, never stopping until they fail (which is generally long after everyone else has failed).  What we accomplish with such standards is improved performance from everyone.

Where improved performance counts most is in life trials, those occasions on which even we cannot sustain our devotion to cherished ideals, when the race outruns us.  To meet with divorce and yet maintain a commitment to the moral standard that abhors divorce; to err with childbirth out of marriage and yet refuse to justify it by denying the knowledge that it is wrong; and to slip in attention to moral duty without ducking the knowledge that we knew better: that is to retain the capacity to deserve honor.

Nor are such considerations merely personal. As my life is now intertwined with yours, so are all of our lives intertwined with those important moments of community and national decision making that make us alternately benefactors and scourges of mankind.  First of all, do no harm, we say.  But nowhere do we find it so difficult to avert the likelihood of doing harm as in those occasions when our sentiments sustain policies that degrade or injure our fellows.  There, too, the standard of knowledge must prevail if we are to adhere to a steady course of moral development—and what else is education for if not for consistent moral development?  For Americans that challenge is well framed today in the crisis in Kosovo.  There one must question not only what the official presentations suggest, but also what the likelihood of human affairs entails.  I remember with considerable concern the case of American intervention in Haiti, which was preceded by deliberate but unavowed efforts on the part of American officials to generate a refugee crisis that would provide a pretext for intervention.  We must ask what our obligations are in such cases.

Similarly, in the case of affirmative action we read in the Wall Street Journal this week that the University of California has now approximated the levels of enrollment for black students it previously attained while practicing preferences.  Although the people of California ended preferential admissions, the University has discovered the means to maintain opportunities for black students.  More importantly, those students now are even better prepared for college than were the students previously admitted.  The key to the situation seems to be the redoubled effort the University has had to undertake in the form of outreach and the careful review of student files.  They simply have been forced to pay more attention to the human beings, as if they really cared about them.

These results suggest that not all was well with the practice of racial preferences, that perhaps it was a remedy embraced too readily with the intention of doing good and with too little attention to the injunction to do no harm.  This is a case in which knowledge of the people whom we affect to influence, direct, or control bears most importantly on our ability to act for good while avoiding harm.  It demonstrates that the knowledge of the race to be run counts for as much as, if not more than, the ability to run the race.

We find a similar situation confronting us in higher education in Virginia.  Not many years ago a series of brutal battles occurred on that ground.  People who were invested with authority to oversee higher education and committed to seeking the good of higher education lost out in struggles to determine how best that might be done.  During the recession years of Governor Wilder they had to contend with serious budget reductions and dramatic increases in tuition charges (offset by still more dramatic increases in financial aid).  Thereafter they contended with administrative redirections that challenged their understanding of what was required to sustain and develop higher education in the best manner.

The officials involved surrendered their positions of authority with a sense of loss that resembles nothing so much as the divorced spouse who refuses to accept the fact that, for them, the race has ended.  So, too, those officials driven from office at the State Council appear to have adopted a stalking and harassing conduct, seeking to undermine the work and the reputation of the Council.  Such persons insist that they and only they know what is best, and in their relentless struggle to regain lost authority they threaten to destroy the very prospects for advancement of the institutions they yearn to benefit.  They act like the bankrupt arsonist, who would rather torch the edifice than yield to the conclusion that it can make a handsome home for someone else.  They act not to deserve honor but to possess it exclusively.  Their contentions resound endlessly, and I am reminded of nothing so much as the preacher who disputed a priest on a point of interpretation of God’s will.  Exasperated, he said at length, “As to God’s will we must agree to disagree; you interpret it your way, and I will interpret it His way.”

The seriousness of my tone this morning derives from a single consideration, my goal of conveying to you that an honors convocation is indeed a celebration but not a trivial matter.  Rather, nothing in your academic lives bears greater importance, for nothing else bears so importantly on the purpose of your academic endeavors.  Higher education in Virginia engages all of us in the necessary work of celebrating honors attained, but doing so in an atmosphere that reminds us constantly of the importance of nurturing the human gifts that make such honors possible.  In turn, that entails conveying a vision of the future of higher education that will redeem the very efforts by which you have distinguished yourselves.

St Paul’s College offers the special opportunity to benefit from a liberal education that emphasizes character development fully as much as academic accomplishment.  In that sense, the honors cropped here today describe habits of well doing as much as they describe habits of doing well.

The Council of Higher Education takes the position that the habits of well doing and doing well hold the key to higher education’s future by means of opening doors for each of you to seek honor.  In doing so we honor principles of civilization and humanity that lift us beyond our particular races for honors and into the honor of giving our best to our fellows.  The vision expressed in the developing 1999 Virginia Plan for Higher Education captures this understanding well.

The mission of St. Paul’s College exemplifies this vision.  Your accomplishments testify to its ability to advance the vision.  Armed with the determination, first of all, to do no harm, you move securely towards standards of excellence and well doing that may inspire all of us.  As my life is intertwined with yours, yours are intertwined with all of those who benefit from and support higher education in Virginia.  I, for one, am honored by the association.  Thus, I take note, on the occasion of this honors convocation, that nothing so swells my breast as recognizing through you that I work at a task in which, whether I succeed or no, I can at least deserve honor.  You, too, I pray, on the occasion of some future St. Crispin’s Day and on which this small band of brothers and sisters confront their own Agincourt, will grow in honor by deserving success.

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