Lesson #1 to #GMU17 (class of 2017)

Posted: August 23, 2013 at 10:50 am

Convocation address, Aug. 23, 2013

Are you ready to start this new adventure?

Are you sure?

Well since you insist, here goes Lesson 1: Who was George Mason?

As it turns, our namesake became famous not just for what he did, but for what he didn’t. George Mason was a nice gentleman and landowner in Virginia, born in 1725 and neighbor of the famous George Washington.

In May 1787, he was called to represent his home state of Virginia in the Convention that drafted the Constitution of the newly independent United States.  Historians believe he had a major influence on the final text of the constitution.  Yet, when the text was finalized in September, he refused to sign it, because, he wasn’t satisfied with what he considered a fatal flaw: the lack of an explicit recognition of individual rights and freedoms.

So since he couldn’t have it his way, he decided not to have it at all, and to the dismay of his old friend, George Washington, he refused to sign the constitution and in fact became an ardent opponent.  Eventually, his position prevailed, and two years later, Congress would approve the first 10 amendments to the constitution, together known as the Bill of Rights.

Freedoms and rights we now take as self-evident—freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, right to a fair trial—are the legacy of George Mason.

Yet, his refusal to sign the constitution relegated him to a second row of history. In fact, if you visit the Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom in the National Archives in DC, where you can see original copies of the Declaration of Independence, US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, you’ll see a beautiful mural with all Founding Fathers, and George Mason appears, a small figure, barely visible behind an imposing George Washington.

Our university’s motto, “Freedom and Learning” is a nod to him.  It is a reminder that freedom, the types of freedom Mason defended, are a necessary condition for learning. Freedom of speech, of thought, of belief, the ability to openly discuss our beliefs to present ourselves as who we are, are essential for learning.

But the opposite is equally true.  To be truly free as human beings we can never stop learning.

Many of us have come to admire the figure of George Mason for how he stood up for his principles.  How he defended his beliefs even at the expense of his personal reputation, glory and friendships.  Academia rewards that kind of attitude.  It teaches us to make strong arguments, to persuade others of our truths, to show others wrong and ourselves right.

And yet, here’s a paradox:  learning takes place not when we try to prove others wrong, but when we consider that we may be wrong ourselves.  Learning is about changing, improving, amending our beliefs, not about sticking to our guns at all cost.  While we have come to admire those who express firm, unwavering beliefs, the ultimate sign of intelligence is not how rigid our minds are, but how open they are to new evidence, new points of view.

Mason himself, like the other famous Virginians of his time, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, while an ardent defendant of individual freedoms, was a slave owner until his death.  And while he publicly disapproved of slavery, he did nothing to abolish it.  Many innocent people paid a dear price for Mason’s and many others’ firmness of belief.

It would take 100 years for a US President, Abraham Lincoln, to sign an emancipation proclamation that would free all slaves, and another 100 years for the descendants of slaves to gain equal standing across the US.

In 1963, exactly 50 years ago, a 34 year old reverend, descendant of slaves, stands on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of a quarter of a million Americans and ad-libs a historical speech that would change the course of American history for millions of oppressed minorities.  It took 200 years to change our minds as a Nation and recognize that people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

Why am I giving you this lecture today, you may ask.

First, because I want you to take full advantage of being outside of the Nation’s Capital. Go visit the museums, the memorials, embed yourselves in this remarkable celebration of what has made this Nation be what it is.  What has remained unchanged, and how much has changed for the better.  Be inspired by what others did to help us be where we are.

But most importantly, I give you this lecture because you don’t have 200 years to change your minds.  You are embarking on a journey of learning and exploration.  You have chosen an institution known for its diversity and openness, known for its spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship.  You will be exposed to students and faculty from all walks of life, from all creeds, and convictions, from all countries in the world.   Some you will find very easy to agree with, to be inspired by.  Others will challenge the very foundation of your thoughts.

My request to you is that you use the next 4 years, not to solidify the beliefs you hold today, but to challenge them, to amend them, to enrich them.  Engage in conversations with those you most disagree with, ask questions, ask yourself how you may be mistaken.  Give yourself the freedom to learn.  That’s how you will grow wiser and freer.

I have a few other requests:

–       Engage in the community, join a club

–       Help your colleagues succeed

–       Work hard

–       Stay healthy. Don’t do drugs.

–       Be creative.

–       Have fun.

Write to Ángel Cabrera at president@gmu.edu

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