Students, faculty, staff of Valparaiso University, I am going to come clean. I have an app on my phone that keeps track of how much coffee I drink and gives me a free coffee for every twelve I buy. And I have a Yo-Mazing Yogurt punch card so that I can get a free frozen yogurt at Yo-Mazing Yogurt over by the Target after ten purchases. And then there’s LePeep’s “Ten Clucks for Ten Bucks,” that will give me $10 off breakfast after ten visits. I have acquired more than a few of these over the years, and I just can’t toss them. I guess I’m the perfect subject for all of those marketing students who are dreaming up new programs designed to modify our behavior and increase our consumption by offering rewards. We live in a world where rewards are the norm–from “My Starbucks Rewards” to Capital One’s “What’s in your wallet?” and many, many more.
And this mindset isn’t limited to companies trying to earn our business. It’s everywhere. From extra credit in school to merit-based pay raises at work, many of us spend our lives chasing after a panoply of incentives designed to identify and reward those who excel in a particular task—as students, as athletes, as teachers or scholars, as workers in a factory or business or government entity. We are trained to expect these enticements to excel as children, when parents reward us with ice cream for good grades or when teachers gave us stickers for good behavior.
Though our cultures seem to place increasing emphasis on incentives and rewards for things like loyalty, consumption, and excellence, societies have been toying with these ideas for a long time. As early as sixth century B.C.E. in China, the philosopher Confucius initiated the idea that “those who govern should do so because of merit and not inherited status.” As a result, the Qin and Han dynasties used merit-based systems to select government officials on the basis of virtue and honesty, rather than through noble bloodlines.
In his Socratic dialogue, The Republic, the Greek philosopher, Plato, suggested that the wise man should rule. During the Enlightenment, Confucian texts were translated and read among Europe’s intellectual elite. Philosophers like Voltaire, advocated strongly for a government that modeled after the Confucian ideal, and the British Empire began a movement in Western societies toward merit-based administrations, starting in colonial India.
In the United States, a merit-based system was adopted in 1883 with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which mandated that government jobs be awarded based on merit rather than through political connections. The effects of centuries of evolution of governmental, cultural, and educational systems toward the principles we now know as “meritocracy” have been pervasive. And you sit here this afternoon as perfect examples of an educational and cultural system that, at least in theory, allows you on the basis of your individual merit, regardless of your background or beliefs, equal opportunity for success, a job, and, of course, an education.
Today you climb another rung on the ladder of educational meritocracy. You are intelligent. You have performed well on standardized tests and earned good grades. You have excelled in other measures of competency—as an athlete, or a musician, or a student leader. And you have been rewarded for your success in the form of awards and recognitions in school and scholarships from colleges and universities.
Now you are at Valparaiso University, a nationally recognized institution with a reputation for excellence. I imagine you are expecting that college will be another round of challenges through which you will demonstrate, to a higher degree, your capabilities to excel as a student. For your achievement, you expect to be rewarded with good grades, with opportunities for leadership, awards and recognitions, a degree, a diploma, and, ultimately, a good job with a great starting salary.
Such are the expectations of those who are climbing the ladder of educational meritocracy these days. Such is the expectation of nearly every entering freshman or transfer sitting in a university convocation today at campuses all over America.
But, students, we have expectations of you. Because you are at Valpo. Beyond the customary chase for rewards and recognition, we expect you to pursue Truth. We expect you to live lives of virtue, to be people of humility, people of integrity, people of character. We expect you to transcend the limits of meritocracy, to discover who you are called to be and what you are called to do in this world.
It is no happenstance that for the past 87 years, Valparaiso University has held convocation on the first day of classes in its Chapel. And for the past 57 years, new students have gathered for convocation in this place — the Chapel of the Resurrection — a place built as a monument to Jesus Christ and the promise of new life. A place of hope. A place brimming with light. A place of worship. A place of prayer.
Maybe you are Christian, and this Chapel will become a regular part of your Valpo week. Maybe your faith tradition is not Christian, or you have no faith tradition. Maybe you lost your faith or your belief in any organized religion. And maybe you do not believe in the concept of God.
Regardless of your beliefs, your presence here today is symbolic in several ways. It is symbolic of this University’s acknowledgement that, in moments like these, we ought to stand before the presence of our Creator, a force much greater than any one of us, a force which we cannot fully know nor comprehend.
Our presence here today is also symbolic of Valparaiso University’s commitment to faith and learning as a University under the Cross, to be that nexus where Athens and Jerusalem meet, to prepare graduates who will lead and serve in church and society. Valparaiso University will challenge you to engage in reflection, to discover your vocation or calling in this world, to live a virtuous life.
And what is this concept we call virtue? Aristotle described virtue as the “golden mean,” that balanced point between a deficiency and an excess of any particular human trait. To Aristotle, virtuous living is a set of endless choices on multiple continua requiring decisions that should be “at the right times, about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way.”
Virtue is moral excellence represented by personal qualities or behaviors deemed by humans in society to be right and good. These characteristics, either individually embodied or collectively shared, exemplify the finest qualities and ultimate potential of human achievement. Virtue lies at the very heart of greatness. Our most excellent selves are also our most virtuous.
During your years at Valpo, you will live and learn in a community dedicated to excellence. We strive here to be our most excellent selves, not for ourselves, but out of gratitude for God’s abundant mercy. For we know that it is only by God’s grace that excellence is possible in our lives and in our work. It is only by God’s grace that we gain new insights and discover new knowledge. It is only through God’s generosity that we master and fulfill the potential of our physical bodies and minds and leverage the talents of our colleagues to complete that successful project, to win that important game, or perform that difficult piece of music. It is only by God’s grace that we transcend the ordinariness of human existence and are offered fleeting glimpses of paradise when we love and serve those in need. And it is out of gratitude for God’s abundant and endless mercy that we, in turn, seek to glorify God by striving to live virtuous lives, individually and in community.
In his new book, “Road to Character,” The New York Times columnist David Brooks talks a lot about the virtues fostered by meritocracy—he calls those resume virtues, and another set of virtues he calls eulogy virtues. He categorizes the resume virtues as those concrete achievements recognized by societies as indicators of success—good grades, awards, leadership positions, diplomas and certifications. Conversely, Brooks describes eulogy virtues as the ones “talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest, or faithful.” He says that, while we all have a general inkling that, in the long run, eulogy virtues are more important than resume virtues, it appears that our society places a greater emphasis on teaching us the skills necessary to be materially successful. Brooks writes:
“About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”
This light that Brooks describes — the one that radiates inside the woman or man of character and integrity — is the same light we saw in you when we accepted you into the Valpo community. That light is reflected in our motto, In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem — “In Thy Light We See Light”— where we are reminded that it is God’s light that shines in each and every one of us who have been called to teach and learn in this place and the nearly 60,000 alumni who have graduated from here to lead and serve all over the world.
Rest assured that Valparaiso University will prepare you to cultivate resume virtues — from developing communication and critical thinking skills to preparing you for your CPA exams or your nursing boards. But we will aim to do more. We will challenge you to live lives of integrity. We will challenge you to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly so that you will enter the world to lead and serve with wisdom. And we will help you learn to harness that light that radiates within each one of you for the greater good. Because, as Aristotle suggests, these virtues “make all the difference.”
In a few minutes, you will pin yourself with the Shield of Character, a symbol of the University’s dedication to preparing women and men who will lead and serve in church and society. Shortly after, you will sign the Honor Code, a more than seven-decade tradition that embodies the University’s emphasis toward academic honesty and integrity.
Both of these gestures symbolize your entrance into the Valparaiso University community. They are traditions that bind our community together, because as David Brooks suggests, “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own.”
As you leave this Chapel today, I challenge each of you to consider these next years of your life not only as an opportunity to achieve academically and earn recognitions that will prepare you for success in material terms, but also to cultivate those virtues that will ultimately define your character. May you discover your calling in life, that place where passion meets purpose—your unique gifts put to work for the sake of the world. And may you embark on this journey knowing that you are now a part of the Valpo community — an exceptional and diverse community of leaders, scholars, mentors, coaches, teachers, and colleagues who are on a similar journey— the pursuit of Truth, the cultivation of character, the love and respect for others who differ from us and disagree with us—a journey that continues to define Valpo and shape all of those who are part of Valpo, and will continue to do so for generations to come.
Blessings to each of you as you embark on this journey, and welcome to Valpo!