Curtis Wilkie — the Last Lecture
Every year, an Ole Miss professor is selected by the Mortar Board to give the Last Lecture. Curtis Wilkie, who was the inaugural fellow at the Overby Center from its inception in 2008 until his retirement at the end of 2020, was chosen for the honor this year. His Last Lecture is below.
Thanks for the invitation to join you this evening. This is not only my "last lecture," but my first appearance back on campus since my retirement. It's always good to be at Ole Miss. I lived here as a child while my mother was getting her master's degree, then became a student, an alumnus and -- surprisingly -- a member of the faculty.
A few months ago, our alumni association asked its members to recall a "favorite moment" at Ole Miss. I replied that it was when I was asked to teach here nearly forty years after I graduated and to have the opportunity to conduct a class on Feature Writing. It was a course I had flunked for missing a deadline. Rather than hiding that fact, I liked to tell that story to my students as a cautionary tale: Of how I learned the importance of meeting deadlines as a journalist. And of how I was prepared, as a teacher, to deliver similar punishment to students who ignored deadlines.
If I succeeded as a classroom teacher, I believe it was because I never forgot what it was like to be a student. I understood it is a critical time in your lives, when you find yourselves with unprecedented independence and fresh responsibilities. A time when you are sorting through strangers as roommates and meeting potentially new friends. When you are, perhaps, having for the first time serious thoughts and questions about romance, religion, politics or the wisdom of your elders.
It's easy for me to remember that time in my own life, when I was beginning to challenge the policies of segregation that I grew up with and to doubt the good sense of the governor and many of the laws of Mississippi. In college, I added to my confusion by embracing the study of existentialism and Zen and reading the literature and poetry of the Beat Generation. So much so that I tried to emulate Jack Kerouac, the author of "On The Road," and dropped out of school for a semester. I traveled to California to find personal enrichment and failed to do so badly. After working a few months in a quilt factory for $1.15 an hour, I gratefully limped back to school. So despite my threat to be a stem instructor when I joined the faculty, I actually wound up cutting my students a lot of slack because of my own experiences.
I discovered I loved teaching. I had an unorthodox approach: I didn't require textbooks and I didn't give tests, per se. Instead, I largely based my grades on the quality of the papers my students wrote, and on their classroom participation. I tried not to lecture, but to limit my prepared remarks to observations that I hoped would stimulate a lot of discussion among the students. Along the way, I found I was continuing to learn myself.
This evening, I hope I'll be able to provoke some thoughts and encourage you to appreciate the history you're going to see.
Before I had my 80th birthday last year, I decided it was time to retire. I began to reflect more and more on the miracle of reaching that age and to marvel over the colorful history that has long fascinated me. When I consider the years, I determined that I have been alive for one-third of our nation's history. As I figure it, the first third covers the time from the founding of the republic to the Civil War; the second third from the first shots on Fort Sumter to the attack on Pearl Harbor - the year before I was born. I also counted up and discovered I have lived under the administrations of 15 of the 45 people who have been president.
I have come to value the importance and drama of the flow of time and history, so when I was asked to deliver this "last lecture" I decided not to concentrate on my own discipline, journalism, a vocation where we are said to write "the first draft of history," but rather to ask you to explore with me the dynamics of constant change in our lives, a subject that touches on every course of study at a university.
You are going to be challenged throughout your lives to adapt to change. You've already experienced one epic event that will always serve as a critical period in your life, living through the pandemic. But you will be confronted with many more crises and upheavals and historic triumphs in your years to come. And you'll discover that each year of the rest of your lives can be a learning experience.
You'll find you'll need to adapt to change. There's no need to cling to the past. No reason not to challenge old valJJ.S, just because they may have been conceived by an older and allegedly wiser generation. There is nothing inherently wrong with change. We need to remember that our nation was born out of revolution against British rule. Our Founding Fathers did a magnificent job shaping a democratic government. We've had plenty of lousy leaders since that time, but our country has survived because the structure Jefferson, Washington, Adams & Co. created enables orderly change. And then change again.
I may look like I was around in 1920, the year Americans changed the Constitution to prohibit the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. I wasn't. But I know from history that the decision was a disaster that triggered a lawless era. Rather than imposing the law forever, Americans recognized their mistake. It took a dozen years, but Prohibition was eventually ditched with the approval of a new Constitutional amendment.
We can't choose the periods in which we will live. Time and the course of history determine that for us. But it will be up to you to navigate your way, to make your own personal decisions that will have a lasting effect on your life.
So I encourage you to try to recognize the importance of earthshaking - and sometimes unpredictable - developments and to be ready to ride the waves of the forces of change. I think of a line from Oliver Wendell Holmes: "It is required of a man," Holmes said, "that he should share the action and passion of his time at the peril of being judged not to have lived."
I'm not going to be as eloquent as Dr. Holmes, but allow me to go over with you some of the enormous events that changed the lives of the people of my generation in order to demonstrate some of our own "actions" and "passions."
Some of what took place during the past 80 years proved to be fun, amazing modem developments in science and technology. But other events were cataclysmic and also had lasting psychological impact on our lives.
To take my lifetime chronologically, World War II obviously affected each of us children differently. Some of my playmates lost fathers during that conflict, causing painful trauma. My recollections of those war years are very fuzzy and not really unpleasant. I was too young to realize the gravity of the situation, the possibility that our country could have been overrun. I simply remember the scarcity of consumer goods. My family had no car. We lived in a trailer in the new, secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on the grounds of a government plant where the first atomic bombs were being assembled. I still have a letter from Santa Claus in 1943 that was distributed to all of the children living there, informing us that the American war effort was using most of the material his elves normally used to make toys that year. He asked us not to expect much that Christmas, and to understand.
Our childhood hardships were insignificant compared to the suffering around the globe. A terrible war was going on, but I was oblivious - as was much of the world - to the Holocaust that was taking place in Europe. Germany, a nation thought to have represented the height of sophistication among civilized people, had embarked on the extermination of six million people, led by a demagogue determined to build a master race. Much later, I lived among the Jewish people and realized how the Holocaust affected their psyche for the rest of their lives. Would they ever feel completely secure? Would they ever be able to trust others again?
The rest of the world should have learned from that experience, but since then other mad despots have risen to power around the world. And there have been other instances of ethnic cleansings in such places as Indonesia, Cambodia, and more recently, in the European boiling pot once known as Yugoslavia.
To my childish sensitivities, the World War II years seared into my consciousness an appreciation for the better times that followed, if nothing else. During the war, I had merely been deprived of things like ice cream and useful items such as paper clips and rubber bands. But it created a personal frugality that lasts to this day. I still save the rubber bands that wrap my morning newspaper and I refuse to throw away paper clips; I clutter kitchen draws with them.
Funny how we are affected by events. I know that my mother, who attended Ole Miss during the Depression, never fully trusted banks or felt financially secure in spite of a regular income. She refused to own a credit card.
The decade of the 1950s is generally remembered as a happy period. America enjoyed post-war prosperity. People who came of age in those years were described as part of a "silent generation" who went about their business without a great deal of drama. Dwight Eisenhower, the great World War II general, was elected president in 1952 and served with a popularity that would be hard to believe today.
Some say that nothing really happened in the 1950s. But my friend, the late author David Halberstam, wrote a history called "The Fifties," that pointed out the storms that lay just below the surface: the conflict with communism that led to a long Cold War with the Soviet Union. At home, personal loyalties would be tested during the McCarthy era witch-hunts. And fears of communistic takeovers caused the United States to make commitments in Korea and Vietnam that ended in bloody wars and deepened divisions in our own nation.
At the same time, I remember stunning scientific breakthroughs in the Fifties. As school-age kids, we were terrorized by the specter of polio. In a way, it was our precursor to the current coronavirus pandemic. Polio suddenly snuffed out children's lives. I had friends crippled for life. With each outbreak, movie theatres were closed, swimming pools were shut, and public gatherings were discouraged. Then a medical researcher named Jonas Salk developed a vaccine in 1953, followed by a massive nationwide campaign to deliver shots that effectively wiped out the menace of polio.
There was also the coming of television into homes like my own that had depended on radios for news and entertainment. Television reception was unreliable. We called it "snow" on the screen, and often it obliterated the picture. But I was grateful when we finally got a TV when I was 15.
Meanwhile, the South was blessed by the widespread arrival of something we take for granted today: air conditioning.
By the time I enrolled in college I was awed by the dizzying change. My family once went to Washington each summer to visit my grandfather, driving three days by car over two-lane highways that crept through every little city between Summit, Mississippi, and the nation's capital. Suddenly, we were able to make the trip by air in a few hours. But not everyone trusted air travel. Booths in airports sold quickie life insurance policies for each flight.
To make our highways faster and safer, the nation embarked on the construction of the Interstate highway system. My trip home, from Oxford to Summit, once took more than five hours. With the completion of I-55, the time has been reduced to three hours, 20 minutes.
In the Sixties, America exploded, and I will always be grateful that I really came of age in that decade. We landed a man on the moon - once an unthinkable achievement. And arguably the two greatest pieces of legislation of my lifetime - the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 - were passed by Congress. But I also think of the Sixties as a time of social upheaval, a revolution by citizens demanding civil rights and challenging a war in Vietnam that many felt was unjust. Three national heroes were assassinated in that decade. Cities burned and streets were filled with chaos. Old, steadfast shibboleths were rocked by the discovery of the "pill" and sensory experiments with drugs. And while our parents had danced to big band sounds and novelty tunes, we were marched to the edge by the cacophony of rock music.
I graduated from college a year late and went to work in the Delta in 1963. Though I was a reporter for a small daily newspaper, the opportunity to cover the civil rights movement changed my life and my approach to journalism. I witnessed police arrest scores of Black children, walking in numbers and waving American flags. They were charged with "parading without a permit." I watched as elderly Blacks, demonstrating for the right to vote, were crowded into jails in the summer. Authorities, determined to preserve what was known as the "Southern way of life" turned on the heat to add to their discomfort. I saw the courage of many Black people willing to defy the Old Order, and I heard the prophecies of leaders such as Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry and a student planning to be a minister, John Lewis.
I realized the power of journalism. Simply by reporting about these activities, as completely and honestly as possible without any editorial comment, reporters were having an impact, even with a small newspaper. Across America, people reading papers and watching television news became familiar with the ugly face of racial discrimination and revolted against it.
That period undid the last vestiges of the early "education" I had received in Mississippi schools where we learned segregationist principles and were actually taught that the Ku Klux Klan was a "helpful" organization. Those years in the Delta became a frame of reference for me that I tried to follow for the rest of my career.
If the Sixties led us to activism, the Seventies taught us skepticism. While our misadventure in Vietnam spun into a second decade - hard to believe that was a half-century ago - it became apparent that the administrations of President Johnson and President Nixon had lied to the American people repeatedly about an inevitable victory - which never happened. In 1970, when our armies and Air Force bombers moved on the neighboring country of Cambodia, campuses across America erupted in protest. Two students at Jackson State were shot to death in their dormitory by police. At Kent State in Ohio, the National Guard fired on student demonstrators, killing four. Occasionally, I still hear on the radio the Buffalo Springfield anti-war anthem with the refrain, "Four Dead in Ohio." The attack by the government on its own young people convulsed scores of colleges, where classes were shut down for the rest of that semester and commencement exercises cancelled.
Our growing distrust of government – a sad phenomenon – widened with the criminal conduct of the Nixon administration during the Watergate affair. So, in 1976, an obscure, former governor of Georgia named Jimmy Carter was elected President on his simple promise: "I will never lie to you."
In 1980, the reporting staff at the Boston Globe, where I worked, was introduced to the computer. We were given laptops – they look primitive compared to those we use today – and were told they would replace typewriters. We scoffed. Quite often, these infernal new devices lost our stories in cyberspace or destroyed them during transmission.
Jimmy Carter lost that year and went home to write his memoirs. On a computer, we learned. We all snickered. Of course, this man with an engineering degree would try to write a book on a computer. We were sure he would fail, and for a little while we yearned to get back our typewriters.
Since that time, I confess I have written six books on a computer.
Carter was beaten by a charismatic candidate named Ronald Reagan, who ushered in a conservative political era that still exists – in a distinctly different form – today. For a political reporter like myself, it meant I had to adjust many of the political calculations I had developed so far in my career.
I spent much of the 1980s overseas. The assignment opened my eyes to the rest of the world, and I found it exhilarating to learn of different peoples and their religions and their cultures. Sometimes I felt ignorant; other times inadequate, especially because I spoke only English. It dramatized for me the value of knowing at least a second language. I still kick myself for failing to have done so when in school. Those years also re-emphasized my belief in the old saying, "Travel is broadening."
It gave me an opportunity to learn of conditions that motivated actions by other governments. I might not have approved of them, but at least I think I had a better understanding. To my students, I have often advocated international travel as the ultimate in a learning experience. And it helps to be able to speak with others in a language other than English.
As we grow older, the years and even decades seem to fly by, and along with them many other memorable events.
I suppose most of you were infants on September eleventh, 2001, a date as critical to your future as December seventh, 1941, was to mine. Within hours of the morning those airliners were flown into the Twin Towers in lower Manhattan, commentators were predicting - accurately, it turned out - that this event would change our lives forever.
Just like Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attack demonstrated we are both vulnerable and resilient. When tested, we proved again to be strong and capable of handling unexpected adversity.
But our reaction had a by-product that I find troubling. It created a new wave of what I once knew as "jingoism." Do any of you know that word? I learned it at Ole Miss 60 years ago. It was used to describe an excessive spirit of nationalism, embodied, for example, in the aggressive behavior of Teddy Roosevelt. That sort of attitude leads to colonialism, and in America it has too often led to interference in small countries that differ with American policy.
It's one thing to be vigilant against any threat to our country. But not, I hope, at the expense of stoking automatic distrust of other peoples and cultures and religions. To me, this is where a sense of superiority and triumphalism masquerades as patriotism.
In the days following 9/11 Congress rushed to pass something called "The Patriot Act," which included Big Brother provisions that actually infringed on some of our First Amendment freedoms at home and authorized indefinite detentions for foreigners deemed as suspicious. News organizations began to portray Arabs and Muslims as members of a dangerous tribe of the "Other."
Real patriotism is admirable, but the word has a long history of abuse and it's being abused again today.
Once again, little American flag lapel pins are flourishing for the first time since the Nixon administration during Vietnam, and pious politicians like to wear them as if they were symbols showing they were holier than others.
It's a lie when racists and foolish extremists call themselves patriots. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors dangerous organizations, just published a study identifying 83 8 "hate groups" in America. In their category of "anti-government organizations" they list no less than 97 groups that use the word "Patriots" in their name.
As Samuel Johnson smartly observed more than 200 years ago, "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels."
I'm reminded of a line used during the Vietnam conflict when it spilled over into violent argument at home. Those who opposed the war were told: "Love America or leave it." There was also a phrase invoked by pseudo-patriots: "My country, right or wrong." Those words were uttered by Carl Schurz, a 19th century senator who had served as a Union general during the Civil War. The pseudo-patriots seized on only Schurz's first few words. His complete declaration, I believe, is actually very valuable.
Schurz did say, "My country, right or wrong." But he continued, "If right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."
Those words dovetail with another expression I have long cherished: "I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice." It's attributed to the French philosopher and writer, Albert Camus, who objected to the techniques of torture employed by the French when they were trying to put down the Algerian revolution.
Despite my criticisms, I assure you that I believe our country is great. But after nearly 250 years, we 're still a work in progress, in constant evolution - if not revolution. And I believe our history has been a wonderous thing to watch unfold as we've changed.
When Donald Trump was elected in 2016 I told my students to be sure to follow events closely because they would be in a position to watch, first-hand, as one of the most unforgettable presidencies in our nation's history played out. They would have something to tell their grandchildren. I have made a lot of faulty predictions, but that one proved to be accurate.
Recounting all of this, I hope, is appropriate to the conclusion of my lecture. Aren't all lectures supposed to contain a lesson?
My bottom line is to tell you that your education will not end upon graduation. It's really just beginning for you. You're going to be confronted with change, and you'll be faced with many decisions. Be ready to deal with change. Be prepared to change your own mind if you become convinced you've been on the wrong course.
But most importantly, establish for yourselves some strong principles and try not to change them.
There's a little book, not much older than you, that's called "The Four Agreements." It's written by a Mexican physician and shaman, Don Miguel Ruiz, and it's based on wisdom drawn from the ancient Toltec civilization that existed in Mexico a thousand years ago. Reduced to its core, the book has four basic recommendations:
• Be scrupulous in your honesty
• Take nothing personally.
• Take nothing for granted.
• And always do your best.
Simple suggestions, but they seem to be worthwhile for all of us to follow.
Thanks for listening to me tonight.
— Curtis Wilkie