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1972 VMI Valedictory Address

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Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote,

“Old time, in whose bank we deposit our notes,
Is a miser, who always wants guineas for groats.
He keeps all his customers still in arrears
By lending them minutes and charging them years.”

Governor Holton, General Irby, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, gentlemen of the corps, and Brother Rats:

How could four years take so long … and yet pass so quickly? It really does seem like only minutes ago that the 225 of us strolled into the Virginia Military Institute. And yet those same years seem like eternity.

Don’t ask us why we came … or why we chose to stay … to pursue an education in the midst of this madness — subjecting ourselves to the tireless routine — to the innumerable restrictions … because although the answer lies deep in the heart of each of us, we don’t know how to explain it.

But be certain, ladies and gentlemen, that you’re now looking at 225 men who have been bound together by four years of common hardship. Don’t tell any of these men that these were the best years of their lives because it is feared that you’ll set each of us to tears.

But it was once said, “They who have loved together have been drawn close. They who have struggled together are forever linked. But they who have suffered together have known the most sacred bond of all.”

You’re looking at 225 men who have developed a bond of loyalty to one another. And as such, have in a special sense become brothers.

Virginia Military Institute is, of course, a unique institution. Its object, in the words of our founder, “is to prepare men for civil life…. The military feature, though essential to its discipline … is not primary in the institution’s scheme of education.”

The goal is to provide an environment favorable to the growth of personal qualities of integrity, responsibility, and self-discipline. And so, within this twofold educational framework — military and academic — the individual learns to grow in character as he does in knowledge.

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, know that you’re looking at men who have not only learned the Keynesian theory of economics and the metaphysics of Aristotle but who have also learned the meaning of such things as tolerance, reliability, the willingness to accept responsibility, and — most important — you’re looking at men who have truly learned the value of placing honor above self.

And ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at individuals who have also learned the importance of not accepting things merely because they exist. We have learned to seek the wrong, and when we find it, to ask, Why? When the answers are not sufficient, we know the value of change.

During these four years, we found that there were some policies at VMI that were inconsistent with the goals of the Institute. When the answers to our questions were insufficient, we attempted to change these policies.

Indeed, our class motto became: “Change with tradition.”

And although we succeeded in some areas, we failed in many more.

During these four years, we talked a lot about the social environment of the VMI cadet … and we questioned the weekend policy of the Virginia Military Institute Academic Board. We asked: Why were seniors at VMI allowed only four weekends off a semester for leisure time, juniors two weekends, and sophomores only one weekend a semester? Indeed, why did a weekend extend only from Saturday noon to Sunday night, with cadets rarely being allowed to go out on Friday night?

The answer we received was that due to the heavy academic burden placed upon us, we needed the time to study.

But we didn’t understand.

Because a system that is supposed to be developing a sense of self-discipline in the individual, teaching us how to budget our own time wisely and prudently, seemed to be denying that the goals were being attained, for we seemed to be having our time budgeted for us. I guess we men of the class of 1972 were egotistical enough to think that there might be a few young ladies at all these Virginia schools that might desire to see us more often.

But more important, we yearned to make the decision ourselves as to whether we could afford to take more time off on weekends. We yearned for the responsibility of budgeting our own time.

So we felt that this was wrong … and we attempted to change it.

We also questioned the automobile policy of the Virginia Military Institute’s Board of Visitors. We asked: Why were men who were 21 or 22 years old — who were juniors and seniors in college not allowed to drive an automobile, all year long?

And the answer we received was that we lacked the maturity and the sense of responsibility that the use of an automobile entailed.

But we didn’t understand.

Because a system that was supposed to promoting maturity and developing a sense of responsibility in the individual seemed to be denying that the goals were being attained. Most of you realize that Lexington, Virginia, is a rather isolated place and that an automobile is a virtual necessity when one wishes to travel elsewhere. I know that you ladies in the audience will tell us that you are equal and that you are liberated, but we men in the class of ’72 will never be convinced that a woman prefers to pick us up, drive us to dinner, and leave us off at our doorstep in the late hours of the night. There was never one among us who would deny that there would be a few cadets that would abuse the privilege, but we said: “Then punish those few” and allow the rest of us to prove that the objectives of VMI were indeed being achieved.

So we felt this was wrong … and we attempted to change it.

We questioned the late-study policy of the Virginia Military Institute. We asked: Why aren’t underclassmen allowed to study past 11:30 at night, especially in light of the heavy academic load that was required?

And the answer we received was that we needed our sleep.

But we didn’t understand.

Ladies and gentlemen, at times we felt like children. We wanted to take responsibility into our own hands — to decide for ourselves whether the completion of an assignment was more important than a couple of hours sleep.

So we felt this was wrong … and we attempted to change it.

So it was these types of policies that we questioned. We felt that it was important that cadets stopped being spoon-fed and that they started making decisions of their own. And if they made a mistake, then so be it, for that in itself is a valuable lesson.

Now, perhaps it appears as if we spent all our time castigating VMI. Quite the contrary, ladies and gentlemen. We listened to the words of Abraham Lincoln: “To sin by silence when one should protest makes cowards out of men.”

But take note that we criticized for one purpose only and that was to better our institution. I, as well as these 225 men, believe in VMI.

For four years, we have refused to be washed away by the greatest wave of anti-military feeling that this country has ever seen. We did our thing, and for four years we weathered the storm of criticism from our peers.

Therefore, when you hear us talking about what’s wrong with our school, do not question our loyalty. We do so only in the hopes of leaving VMI a little better place than when we first came.

And I guarantee you — I promise you — this will be one class that not only has tried to improve the Institute while we’ve been here but that will continue to do so after we graduate.

Now, as we pass the torch to the class of 1973, we tell you men that change for the sake of change itself is not good. Follow a meaningful path. This is the first year in the tenure of our superintendent, General Richard Irby. And ladies and gentlemen, I think I speak for the entire corps when I say that we are pleased and we are proud of the selection of General Irby as our superintendent. We believe that he has done a remarkable job this year and that he is truly leading VMI in the right direction.

And so you men work with General Irby, and continue to make VMI a better institution — an institution that continues to dedicate itself not only to producing good soldiers but also to educating men in intellectual as well as ethical values. So that once man — with God’s help — realizes that war is futile, that it is destructive, that it is barbaric, the need for VMI men will still exist in American society.

Brother Rats, we enter another world. A world to which, I’m afraid, we’re not very accustomed. A world in which a lack of integrity — a lack of trust in a man’s word — seems to be the way of life. And we’re not used to that.

We are entering a world in which it seems that the search for comfort and convenience is a shadow that dominates the minds of many men, where the only purpose that man seems to have for himself in life is to find an easier way.

And so we have to ask ourselves: Are we ready to accept a challenge? A challenge to go out into this world and try to change it also? To instill a new sense of values. Where a man’s honor is his most prized possession. Where hard work once again becomes a virtue. Where man has definite goals for himself. Where he shoots for the stars with the confidence that he’ll reach the heavens.

While the task will not be easy, let us not fear to undertake it. Let us not fear to be laughed at, scoffed at, ridiculed. Let us not fear to lead the way down that long road to truth.

And with courage and determination, we’ll break through the roadblocks of error and disappointment and we’ll accomplish things that man never dreamed were possible. Are we ready to accept that challenge?

You know, ladies and gentlemen, for four years we’ve been told that this day would bring a mixture of happiness and sadness. And for four years we’ve laughed at the absurdity of the latter. But I think now we realize that we were the fools.

In the years to come, some of us will become lawyers, others of us engineers, some of us soldiers, and other may choose business or other professions. In all likelihood, some of us will never see each other again.

But no matter whether this be the last time that the entire class of 1972 be assembled together — no matter what road each of us chooses to follow — let it be known that the bond will not be broken because the spirit of the class of 1972 will keep us together.

And so now, after four long years together, this day has come too soon because now we have to bid farewell to one another.

Please know, Brother Rats, that speaking as your valedictorian on this VMI Graduation Day, in the spring of 1972, has been the biggest honor of my life. Thank you.

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Lead Editorial
The V.M.I. CADET newspaper
Sunday, May 21, 1972

FINALS

Finals is perhaps the most unique of all seasons at VMI. It is pervaded by an optimistic and fresh atmosphere that is unlike anything cadets normally associate with the Institute. It is a time in which cadets can cast aside the problems and frustrations of VMI life to relax and “have a good time.” It is a time when the old order yields to the new. It is not, however, an accurate portrayal of life at the Institute.

In viewing life at the Virginia Military Institute during the finals period it is imperative that visitors keep the following in mind: that cadets are devoid of academic pressures, have dates for the weekend and are soon leaving. These facts serve as an explanation for the undercurrent of optimism pervading the Institute during the finals period.

If one desires an accurate sampling of cadet opinion, he need look no further than the address of Cadet Jack Hornberger, valedictorian of the class of 1972. In the opinion of this newspaper, Cadet Hornberger’s address is a responsible and well-balanced approach to the problems confronting the VMI. It attempts, as this newspaper does, to confront the Institute’s problems with specific and detailed solutions. It rejects, as does this newspaper and, we feel, a majority of the corps, the approach taken by last year’s valedictorian, who dealt in generalities and personalities. In short, Cadet Hornberger’s approach is one of constructive criticism, and not one of bitter, pointless rhetoric. This, we feel, is the path that must be taken if it is to effect meaningful improvements in the VMI system.

In closing, the staff of the VMI CADET would like to extend its best wishes to the Class of 1972 as it enters the “real world.”

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(Note: At VMI, the valedictorian is chosen by his classmates rather than being the graduate with the highest grade-point average.)

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.