The 2020 Commencement Address, delivered by George F. Will on April 24, 2021. Remarks as prepared for delivery.
You Are Among the Elite. Get Over It.
President Stimpert, trustees and faculty, distinguished guests, proud parents, and, most of all, members—perhaps I may now say my fellow members—of Hampden-Sydney’s Class of 2020:
Brevity is the soul of wit. And a wit has said that brevity is the soul of lingerie. On occasions such as this, with listeners eager to commence the rest of their lives, brevity also is polite, and prudent.
I have come here to congratulate you. But you might find the nature of my congratulations unsettling. Which is as it should be: This is the final occasion for you to experience what a great educational institution, such as Hampden-Sydney, should do—it should challenge ideas that are insufficiently thought through.
I congratulate you who are graduating today on the fact that you are entering into membership in a much-derided, even despised group. Today you join—you really have no choice about it—the American elite. I urge you to embrace that membership unapologetically, proudly. And to live up to its responsibilities. You see, you are the answer to Alexis De Tocqueville’s question. Let me explain.
Nearly two centuries ago, De Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, traveled through President Andrew Jackson’s America. Jackson was America’s first populist president. But not its last. Jackson celebrated the wisdom of the masses. He disdained what today are called elites. And this prompted De Tocqueville’s question, which was this: Can a society that rightly celebrates equality nevertheless generate—and celebrate—and elevate—excellence?
Today, the term “elitism” is bandied about carelessly. Elitism is more frequently deplored than it is carefully considered. Elites are deplored partly because of confused thinking.
One belief is that those who attain elevated positions in society enjoy unearned eminence because they have risen partly because of family advantages. Well, to the members of the Class of 2020, I say this: Your families nurtured you, and planned and sacrificed for you. That is what conscientious parents do. They should be praised for doing it. And your ascent into the nation’s elite is not devalued because your parents propelled you toward excellence. You have attended a highly selective college, which selected you for a reason—because you have aptitudes and attitudes, and talents, and promise that you, and those who raised you, worked diligently to produce.
You would not want Hampden-Sydney to be other than selective. It is not for everybody. I am sure that when you of the class of 2020 have children, you will work hard to help your children be members of Hampden-Sydney classes in the 2030s.
Elites are a small portion of society—a small portion with unusual accomplishments and disproportionate influence. And elites always exist everywhere. Always. Everywhere. In any large, modern, complex society, the question is not whether elites shall exist, but which elites shall exist.
Our nation is a republic, and a great Virginian, my hero, James Madison, said that the foundational principle of a republic is representation. The plain truth about representative government is that “the people” do not decide issues, they decide who will decide.
A successful society develops ways of finding talented people from all walks of life to join its elites. The challenge of democracy is to get voters’ consent to governance by worthy elites. Elections are, in a sense, aristocratic devices. We could fill public offices by lottery—by the random allocation of public responsibilities by the luck of the draw. But we do not want randomness. We want to select officials who satisfy exacting criteria that only a few can meet. Obviously, we do not always get such officials. But we should always aim for worthy elites. Majorities have a right to rule, but majorities are not always right. And majorities can be tyrannical.
Another great Virginian—Chief Justice John Marshall, born 100 miles from here—is the greatest American never to have been president. His greatness derives from the fact that he firmly established judicial review of laws and practices adopted by majoritarian institutions. Judicial review, which is judicial supervision of popular government, guarantees that there are limits to what majorities can do. Judicial review gives the judgment of an elite—the judgment of the Framers of our Constitution—priority over the preferences of transient majorities.
We depend on credentialed elites, not just in politics and government, but throughout society. When we need surgery, or a transcontinental flight, we seek the help of reliable, credentialed, elites. As a wise man has said, when you enter an elevator for a ride to the top of a tall building, the certificate in the elevator does not say “Gee, we hope you have good luck getting to the top floor.” Rather, the certificate says that engineers, educated and examined by other engineers, have made sure that you can be confident that you will be safe as you rise.
Some people simply are better than others at designing buildings, or writing novels, or performing heart surgery, or conducting symphony orchestras, or construing the Constitution. Such people are not superior to others in the eyes of God or the law. They are, however, superior in the possession of skills that are exceptionally admirable, and that society needs.
One reason we Americans are so fond of sports is that sports are severely, inescapably, unapologetically meritocratic and aristocratic. We might even say that sports are islands of aristocracy in our democracy. I write about politics in order to support my baseball habit. I have published 15 books and one of them, on baseball, has sold more than the other 14 combined. I consider this evidence of national health.
This baseball book is titled Men at Work and its subtitle is The Craft of Baseball. Consider the idea of craftsmanship. There can be an aristocracy of humble crafts. In Pittsburgh I visited an organization that helps many men who have left prison. It helps them to learn a vocation so that they can successfully re-enter society and thrive. They learn bricklaying from masters of that craft. And I assure you that a master of the craft of bricklaying has an elegance in his motions that is truly aristocratic.
The American philosopher William James said: “There is very little difference between one man and another; but what little there is is very important.” The little difference that makes admirably elite people is a passion for doing things the right way.
When Joe DiMaggio was asked why he played so hard, every game, even a Tuesday in August in Cleveland, he said: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.”
True elites are composed of men and women who are relentless in pursuit of excellence for its own sake. “Bull Durham” is one of the greatest baseball movies. Its main character is a journeyman minor league catcher named Crash Davis. He is near the end of his career, never having made it to the major leagues. He is kept on the Durham Bulls team so he can mentor Nuke LaLoosh, a young pitcher with, as Crash Davis says, “a million-dollar arm and a five-cent brain.”
Davis’ job is to teach LaLoosh how hard it is to turn natural talent into unnatural excellence. Into hard-earned and habitual excellence. In one scene, LaLoosh bounces into the dugout after pitching one good inning and sits down on the bench next to Davis. LaLoosh is brimming with self-satisfaction. Then there is this exchange:
LaLoosh: “I was good, eh?”
Davis: “Your fastball was up and your curveball was hanging. In the Show [the major leagues], they woulda ripped you.”
LaLoosh: “Can’t you let me enjoy the moment?”
Davis: “The moment’s over.”
Crash Davis, you see, has learned the essential lesson of life: Nothing lasts. Davis has never been a star but he is an aristocrat in this sense: He understands excellence and insists on people being as excellent—as elite—as they can be.
I wish Americans would take excellence as seriously as they take sports. If they did, they would tone down their reflexive, reckless disparagement of elites. Americans should become comfortable with the vocabulary of praise. The vocabulary of appreciation and gratitude for those who have achieved—who have earned—distinction. A nation that is uneasy with, even hostile to, hierarchies of achievement will find itself mired in mediocrity. And it will find itself in decline, without reserves of excellence to reverse the decline.
The American poet Robert Frost once said: I do not want to live in a homogenized society—I want the cream to rise. You of the Class of 2020 now become a portion of America’s cream. You have risen. And thanks to Hampden-Sydney, you validate a famous English couplet from many centuries ago. It is this: “All men are created equal, they differ only in the sequel.”
You are the sequel to one of America’s finest educations. Few—very few—enjoy the privilege of the kind of quality education that you have received. I hope you will wear your difference, not with vanity or haughtiness, but with quiet pride and confidence.
In sports, true excellence is not ostentatious. Vince Lombardi, the great coach of the Green Bay Packers, hated, as all sensible people do, players who preen and show off and call attention to themselves when they score a touchdown. Lombardi told his players: “When you get to the end zone, act as though you have been there before.” This is the aristocratic attitude. The truly elite hunger for distinction—but allow their accomplishments to speak for themselves.
Another great Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, spoke of a “natural aristocracy.” He meant people not born to eminence but who earn eminence by developing their natural talents. As you have done, with the indispensable help if your families, and this great college.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks, you are now part of the nation’s elite—you have no choice about that. I hope you will bring into whichever elite you chose to join—whatever profession you chose; whatever role you chose in the life of your nation—the quiet pride you have earned here at this elite college.
I am grateful to this wonderful college for the honor of addressing you, the Class of 2020. And I am grateful to you for allowing me to bestow upon you a word that too often is an epithet—the word “elite.”
Thank you all.
George F. Will is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American libertarian-conservative political commentator and author. He writes regular columns for The Washington Post, is a regular contributing editor of Newsweek magazine, and provides commentary for NBC News and MSNBC. In 1986, The Wall Street Journal called him "perhaps the most powerful journalist in America."