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Departing seniors urged to seek changes, truth day by day
STANFORD --Seek changes and truth in day-by-day actions, speakers urged graduating Stanford University seniors at the Class Day '91 luncheon June 15 in Bowman Oak Grove.
"We are not the first to dream of a world where things don't have to be the same," said Floyd Thompkins Jr., associate dean of Memorial Church. "But we may be the first to sit here, seduced by television and large histories to believe that history is made by bombastic acts of courage."
He told two parables, the first "an old story that I invented last year," about a young man who wanted to persuade his grandfather to go with him to the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King. The grandfather preferred to stay home and plow his field behind his mule.
"You don't have to stay here," the grandson protests. "You can now be somebody of greatness and stature beyond this farm."
The old man reminds him that it was his years of plowing the field that paid for the grandson's education and his work with King.
"You see, Grandson, I've got my mule," he says. "When you get your mule, you tell me about it."
Thompkins' second parable was an anonymous poem about a woman many seniors remember from her visit to Stanford last year.
"I am only one person," the poem begins. "What can one person do? Rosa Parks was just one person. She said one word . . . and the word was no. One woman said one word and the nation blushed. . . ."
Parks was the inspiration for the Birmingham, Ala., bus boycott that led to a Supreme Court decision ending segregation.
Thompkins said that Stanford graduates are presumed to be -- and some will be -- future leaders of the country.
"But there will be more of you that every day on the job, every moment of decision, will simply do what you do because you believe it's right."
With such daily acts of courage, he said, "not only will your field get plowed, but the movement will happen, the dreams will be fulfilled, and the world will be changed. . . .
"I tell you, you can make a change by plowing every day."
Political science Prof. David Brady told a story from the same era. As a graduate student, he went to Mississippi in 1964 to help register voters. In a conversation with a 63-year-old woman in a ramshackle farmhouse outside Hattiesburg, he said, "I learned that a woman with a sixth-grade education could know more -- and have more correct insights about politics -- than a Ph.D. in political science."
The lesson he learned was about truth-seeking and tolerance. Society rewards people, such as Stanford students, who can manipulate verbal and mathematical symbols, Brady said, "but the danger is that many people come to believe that truth can only be found in such circles."
He urged the students to stick to the principle that no one group has a monopoly on truth with a capital T. He said all societies in some sense recognize this: In Zambian villages, the definition of a good leader is "a person who can learn from a child."
Brady's second lesson about tolerance and the truth came from arguing with his father about the Vietnam War.
"I knew he was wrong and I was right," Brady said. "His motives and ethics were suspect, thus conversation and communication were impossible."
Later, Brady learned that it is possible to discuss -- if not agree upon -- issues with his own daughters by giving them the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they use high ethical standards and good intentions to reach their points of view.
For a third principle, Brady urged students to view the search for truth as a process that continues throughout life, and to be tolerant of their own changes of view over time.
"At any one point, doubt the truth of your views," he said. "Question everything, and you will find, in the process of questioning, that you will arrive at more reasonable approximations of truth. And, more importantly, you will be that rare human being who is comfortable with themselves regardless of their station or age in life."
Brady is Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Professor of Political Science, Business and the Changing Environment, and Ethics.
Jean Fetter, who steps down this year after seven years as dean of undergraduate admissions, told the seniors that she too was going through a sort of commencement. "Dean Jean" reflected on the mixed emotions the occasion brings, exciting prospects and terrifying unknowns.
Fetter said she had promised herself not to offer the seniors any serious advice: "As my fellow countryman Oscar Wilde once said, 'It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.' "
Instead she listed some of the accomplishments of the class she admitted as freshmen four years ago: academic, athletic, creative and public service contributions in an array "few deans of admissions in the country could claim."
She let the students' own words provide reassurances about the future, quoting from essays they wrote in their applications to Stanford. Her favorite essay -- about brothers whose lives were taking separate paths -- was based on a quote from Catullus that served as Fetter's own goodbye:
"Ave atque vale, Class of 1991. Hail and farewell."
Almost 4,000 seniors, families and friends turned out for the Class Day luncheon, which also included a welcome to the ranks of alumni by William Stone, president of the Stanford Alumni Association, and presentation of the J.E. Wallace Sterling Award for service to Stanford to seniors Steven Kafka and Cory Booker.
The four senior class presidents -- Booker, David Asch, Elizabeth Lambird and Jacqueline Yau -- announced the class gift: signs at two entrances to Stanford, carved from the original sandstone used to build the campus of the 1890s.
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