Jon Meacham Urges UT Graduates To Learn From Past, Think For Themselves

Friday, December 15, 2017 - by Amy Blakely, UTK

Presidential historian, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, and former Chattanoogan, Jon Meacham urged UT graduates to embrace their Tennessee spirit by learning from the past and thinking for themselves.

Dr. Meacham spoke and received an honorary degree—a Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Arts and Sciences—during the undergraduate commencement ceremony on Friday. He is the 18th person to receive an honorary degree from UT. 

The university awarded 1,170 undergraduate degrees, 654 graduate degrees, six law degrees, and three veterinary medicine degrees during this week’s commencement ceremonies.  

Born in Chattanooga, Dr. Meacham was educated at St. Nicholas School and the McCallie School, and graduated from the University of the South in Sewanee. 

After beginning his career at the Chattanooga Times, Mr. Meacham went on to be an editor at Random House, Newsweek, and the Washington Monthly. He contributes to the New York Times Book Review, Time, and MSNBC. 

His book American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House won a Pulitzer Prize and was a New York Times best seller. He’s also written award-winning books about George H. W. Bush, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill. He is now working on a biography of James and Dolley Madison. 

Dr. Meacham, who lives in Nashville and Sewanee, is a distinguished visiting professor at Vanderbilt University. 

“I am a Tennessean by birth, education, and inclination,” Dr. Meacham told the commencement crowd in Thompson-Boling Arena. 

As a child playing on Missionary Ridge in Chattanooga, he sometimes found Minié balls, muzzle loading rifle bullets, from the Civil War battle fought there. 

“The war’s relics were real and tangible, as was much of the complex American story,” he said. “To me—to all Tennesseans, really—history is not clinical or distant but real, abiding, and ever unfolding. 

“If the men and women of the past—with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites—could press on through ignorance and superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to form a more perfect union, then perhaps we can, too.” 

The past shows us that good people aren’t perfect and compromise is “the oxygen of democracy,” he said. It also shows that Tennesseans have a history of being independent thinkers. 

“We were the last state to secede and the first to rejoin the Union—we were a purple state in the era before we talked about red and blue. 

“From the beginning, the daughters and the sons of Tennessee have thought for themselves. We don’t like being told what to do or how to view the world,” he said. 

He urged graduates to embrace that legacy. 

“Don’t let a single cable network or a single Twitter feed tell you what to think. That’s not the Tennessee way. Our way is to use the great gift of reason—our own ability to figure it out and forge our own path through the wilderness of the present and into the future.” 

In closing, he left them with a laundry list of advice: “Be curious, be gracious, be hopeful; love your neighbor; say your prayers if you’re so inclined; take naps outside on summer afternoons; read Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and detective stories; go to the movies; subscribe to newspapers and magazines. . . . Vote in each and every election; always put your hand over your heart and join in when a band strikes up the national anthem; write thank-you notes on real paper—you know, the dead-tree kind. And try to look up from those screens, whether on your phone or on your wrist. 

"Above all, remember, in hours of joy and of darkness, that a life well lived is judged not by the bottom line but by the big picture.”

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