Tom Wolfe Addresses Valedictory Exercises, Awards and Gift Presented

May 20, 2006 — Novelist and essayist Tom Wolfe told members of the University of Virginia's Class of 2006 that they have amazing opportunities awaiting them at a turn of the century he described as convulsive, confused, and chaotic.

Wolfe addressed the graduates and their families and friends during the annual Valedictory Exercises Saturday (May 20) on the Lawn where commencement will be held at 10 a.m. on Sunday.

In addition to Wolfe's speech, the ceremony featured the presentation of several awards and the announcement of the Class of 2006 gift to the University. The gift of $222,044 represents contributions from a record-breaking 59 percent of the graduating class and will benefit 170 different programs.

On the brilliant May morning with "spring bursting," Wolfe compared the current era to two previous periods marked by convulsive changes in the world. He cited the French and American revolutions in the late 1700s and early 1800s as periods of amazing change. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Wolfe said, Marxism, Freudianism, and modernism caused similar upheaval.

Wolfe said now is a "perfect time to make a huge difference in such a confused and, I would say, chaotic universe." He added that we are in a convulsive state "in terms of the political look of the world and in terms of man's explanation for his own existence."

Human beings cannot live without an explanation for their existence, Wolfe said. "I think probably when man got language the first question he asked is one that three-year-olds ask: 'Why?' Why am I here? How did I get here? What is this struggle called life all about? There must be a reason. There must be an explanation."

He called neuroscientists today's "super-Darwinians" who believe that everything we do is controlled by our genetic makeup, which was described by Darwin.

"They feel that we are computers who walk," he said. "And if you know the software, you can predict what humans are going to do. There is no such thing as free will, no such thing whatsoever."

Telling the graduates that "we are wide open for the words of a prophet," Wolfe asked them to step forward: "If there is anyone among you who has an explanation for why — what are we here for, what is this struggle called life all about — [and] if you can hear my voice at this moment, do it. Do it. And you will light up the sky and be remembered by humanity with ultimate gratitude forever."

Prior to Wolfe's speech, a series of awards was presented:

Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards

  • Jessica C. Fowler, Class of 2006
  • Alexander W. Stolar, Class of 2006
  • V. Shamim Sisson, senior associate dean of students

Seven Society Awards

  • Louis A. Onesty Memorial Scholar Award: Meredith Lee Lazarus, Class of 2006
  • James Earle Sargeant Award: "One in Four," sexual assault prevention and research organization

Class Award for Community Service: Emily Suzanne Pedneau, Class of 2006

Class Award for Cultural Fluency: Habab Aizeldin Mohamed Ahmed, Class of 2006

Class Award for Lasting Enrichment: Thomas Alfred Gibson IV