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Gov. Gilbert C. Walker

(Address of Gov. Gilbert C. Walker, at the commencement of the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, July 9, 1873.)

Ladies and Gentlemen:

The occasion of our assembling is one of no ordinary moment. The commencement exercises of every College are full of interest and importance to those immediately concerned as well as to the friends of education and human advancement. While the aspiration of the student on these occasions is to acquit himself in a manner worthy of himself, his preceptors, and his friends, and their hopes and affections are elevated or depressed as he succeeds or fails, the lover of education and of progress beholds all evidences of intellectual and moral development with the highest emotions of thankfulness and satisfaction. All these aspirations, hopes and emotions have their possessors and representatives in the intelligent audience before me, and should I not satisfactorily demonstrate my appreciation of these surroundings, my tongue will fail to enunciate the ideas and impulses of my head and heart.

We have gathered here to witness and participate in the first commencement exercises of this College. With this day ends its first year's existence, and if its maturer years shall fulfill the brilliant promises of its earlier days — if, in truth, the “child be the father of the man,” then, indeed, may Virginia well be proud of her latest born, and, like all fond mothers, shower upon it her choicest blessings.

Perhaps no event has transpired within our State for many years possessed of greater significance or of more far-reaching consequences than the organization of this Institution. For the first time in her history she has established a College primarily devoted to practical education. High schools and colleges she has had; schools of law and medicine, of theology and theoretic science of high character and great usefulness have not been wanting; but never before has there been organized, by her express mandate, to be controlled by her own officers, a school especially devoted to instruction in the practical industries of life. Its foundation forms an epoch in her educational history, and evidences one of the chief characteristics of our age. What are the laws, literature and institutions of any age but the visible expression of its wants and necessities, the incarnation of its thoughts and aspirations? “What were the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Republic of Plato or the Institutes of Justinian, but the visible, tangible embodiment of the ideas of their several eras? And what is this College but the embodiment of an idea, the expression of a conscious necessity, an ascertained want of our day and generation?

That the development and prosperity of the agricultural and mechanical interests is a necessity to the well-being and progress of society, and that these objects can be more successfully accomplished by the education of those engaged in these pursuits in whatever appertains to them, is an idea which has long been entertained by wise men and statesmen, but it never received much popular endorsement nor found substantial or general expression until modern times. To-day, however, it is strong in popular favor and finds expression in one form and another, but notably in the numerous Technical Schools and Colleges organized not only in our own but in nearly all the progressive countries of Europe.

These schools are based substantially upon the theory that every useful occupation of man is a specialty — that is, that it involves in its exercise principles and practices peculiar to itself, and which do not, in a like degree, at least, belong to any other, and that a knowledge of these can be best obtained in a school especially devoted to instruction therein.

Upon this theory was organized the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, and whatever mutations may await it in the coming years, I trust that from this fundamental idea it will never depart. Its mission is essentially and pre-eminently that of practical education.

But it may be asked, What is meant by practical education? Primarily, it is a term of broad significance. In one sense all education is practical. At least, it is not difficult to establish that any education which is not practical either in its nature or tendencies, or both, is not only useless, but absolutely harmful. Real education has for its object the discipline of the mental and moral faculties, the enlargement of the powers and capacities of the mind, and the storing it with useful knowledge; and any plan or system of education which accomplishes these results is essentially practical. As real knowledge has been defined by a distinguished modern author to be “an acquaintance with the relations which things and ideas bear to each other and to themselves — in other words, * * an acquaintance with physical and mental laws” — it follows, if his definition of knowledge and mine of education be correct, that the term practical education comprehends within its scope not only the lowest, but also the highest degree of culture, the very beginnings of knowledge as well as each successive stage of its development up to the highest condition of mental and moral existence attainable by man.

The term, however, as generally used, has a much narrower and more specific signification. By practical education we mean instruction in the theory and principles of the useful arts and industries, and in their actual application in practice. Of the inestimable value of these industries it seems almost unnecessary to speak in this presence. Their immense importance is becoming daily better understood and more justly appreciated. They lie at the foundation and permeate the whole social structure. They not only furnish the life-blood, but constitute the motors for its transmission through every ramification of the body politic. They are the sources of power, the well springs of progress, the fountains of blessings innumerable. And yet in the ages past how little of the world's intellect, how few of its honors and emoluments have they commanded; how much even of the knowledge of them, acquired by experience, was deemed worthy of being treasured up in books or manuscripts for present use or transmittal to succeeding generations. How meagre the progress made in these great — I might almost say fundamental and life-supporting, if not life-giving, industries, when compared with that attained in other avocations and subjects of study and ambition! Literature and the arts, the science of war and the mysteries of alchemy, the speculations of philosophy and the struggles of religious creeds, engrossed the attention and controlled the intellect and energies of men. Agriculture and Mechanics possessed no allurements for the energetic, the intelligent and the ambitious. Fame and affluence waited not upon their votaries. The poor, the ignorant, and the servile; in fact, those only followed these pursuits whom vassalage or misfortune compelled, or whose intellectual inferiority unfitted them for other and more honorably esteemed employments. Hence they were neither profitable nor honorable. And while at times gleams of light pierced through the mists of ignorance and prejudice, it was not until a later and more recent day that advancing civilization, and the consequent increasing wants and necessities of man, began to awaken a clearer comprehension and a juster appreciation of their dignity and importance. But the glory of their complete emancipation from degradation and their elevation to their true position among the most important and useful, as well as honorable, vocations of man was reserved to our day. And should our age go down in history with no other distinguishing mark of its progress and enlightenment, this one achievement alone will command for it the respect and admiration of future generations.

Not only have these industries been raised to the position which their inherent worth entitles them to occupy, but another advanced step has been taken. The conviction has slowly but surely fastened itself upon the public mind that ignorance is as incompatible with success in these as in other pursuits, and that experience, education and special training are relatively as fundamental conditions of success to the mechanic and agriculturist as to the lawyer and physician.

And from this conviction sprang the desire which has ripened into a demand that such opportunities and facilities shall be afforded those designing to engage in these special branches of industry as will enable them to become thoroughly educated and skilled in whatever of practical experience, applied science, or other useful knowledge appertains to them.

To meet this demand and to promote this kind of education is the primary object of this Institution. Its curriculum embraces a course of training ample to secure the accomplishment of these objects, and he who shall have thoroughly mastered all will go forth to the great battle of life more serviceably panoplied than Achilles, more powerfully armed than Richard Cœur-de-Leon. He will be able to hew his pathway to success with a battle-axe of his own fashioning and move on to the goal of his ambition, invulnerable alike to the arrows of ignorance or of prejudice. He will be qualified to engage successfully in one of the noblest and most beneficial occupations of man — the cultivation of mother earth; and as he watches the wonderful processes of nature, the germination, growth and maturity of vegetable life, his soul will be quickened and expanded to new investigations and a broader comprehension of the great fundamental laws which regulate and control all things, from the minutest particle to revolving spheres. His knowledge of Drawing, Mechanics, Architecture and Natural History will enable him not only to build a house and plan a palace, construct a railroad and locomotive engine, and manage the one or run the other, but also to investigate the sources of organic life and trace its successive stages of growth, its various and distinctive origin and development up to a conclusive demonstration that his ancestors were not apes, as Darwin contends, but were rather the creations of the All-Wise Ruler of the Universe, and in his express similitude.

But it is not my purpose to essay an extended description of all the powers and possibilities with which a complete mastery of all the studies and exercises included in the prescribed course of this institution would clothe the student. Nor do I anticipate that the picture which I have already hastily sketched will be tilled up in all its details, or be fully completed, even in its general outlines, by every youth whose name may be entered upon your rolls; but I do anticipate an approximation to it. I have a right to anticipate, and I have full faith that my anticipations will be fully realized, that this institution will fulfill the noble objects of its creation and equal the full measure of its great opportunities. It will neither supersede our Primary Schools nor supplant our Colleges, but will rather build upon the former and add sustenance to the latter. The course of instruction in our primary schools constitutes the very foundation whereon must be reared the whole educational superstructure of every individual, and this foundation should be well and carefully laid before he attempts to build thereon with materials furnished here or elsewhere. Beginning, then, where the primary school leaves off, the student will here be prepared to practically exemplify the peculiar benefits derived from the technical course of instruction here imparted, either in mechanical or agricultural pursuits; or if his nature and acquisitions incite him to a higher and wider range of culture, the doors of the college and university are open to him, wherein he may enter and revel in the boundless fields of thought and knowledge. With antagonism towards none, but profound sympathy for all systems and means of education, this College will move on in its own distinctive and appropriate sphere of perfecting, elevating and ennobling those great industrial interests which to-day engross the intellect and energy of a large portion of the human race, and upon which the progress and development of the whole very largely depend.

These are some of the distinctive characteristics of this College, as well as some of the reasons which called it into being. But how is it sustained, and what are its means of support, both present and prospective?

One of the wisest acts ever passed by Congress — one which shines out from the gloom and turmoil and bloody carnage of 1862, with a radiance as calm and pure and peaceful as the morning star — was that which appropriated to each State a portion of the public domain for the endowment and maintenance of Colleges “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.” But the action of Congress in making this appropriation was no more commendable or patriotic than that of Virginia in her disposition of it. I cannot speak in too laudatory terms of the wisdom and foresight which enabled her, by an advantageous sale and a more advantageous investment, to nearly double the principal of the fund derived from this congressional appropriation, and to increase the income therefrom in a corresponding degree. This annual income will reach fully $30,000, two-thirds of which are set apart for the maintenance of this College, and one-third to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school founded upon the same theory as this College, but devoted to the education of our colored population; and right nobly is it performing this necessary and important duty. By this division of the fund between these two institutions its benefits will be shared in by all the people of the State, and the principle of separate schools for each race, which I regard of vital importance to each and absolutely essential to success in either, will be maintained and perpetuated. In addition to this fund, the good county of Montgomery, in the plentitude of her patriotism and liberality, has donated to this College the munificent sum of $20,000. I would that her generous example might be followed by every county in the State, that each might contribute a monumental stone to the grand temple which is here to rise, so that when their sons shall throng its lofty porticoes and crowd its stately halls the conscious pride of benefactors may mingle with their emotions of gratitude and zealous devotion. These funds, together with those derived from the fees of students other than State, constitute the resources of the Institution and its present means of subsistence.

While these may be sufficient to sustain its present being, they are in no wise commensurate with the requirements of “the life to come.” The sustenance of the child is unequal to the demands of developed manhood. The veil is lifting upon a future of unexampled physical and mental activity. The wonders of to-day will become the common places of to-morrow, and the dreams of the present the realizations of the future. As the accumulated knowledge and experience of the past aroused, invigoroted [sic] and augmented the energies and capacities of the present, so the restless activities and magnificent achievements of this generation will be increased and multiplied many fold by the next. It matters not that the anchorite mourns or the cynic derides “the degeneracy of our times;” it matters not that a Froude or a Ruskin should wield his trenchant pen in exaltation of the many virtues of our ancestors and their decadence in our day; it is unquestionably true that the civilization of the present is far in advance of any that has preceded it. Lapses from virtue there have been; great crimes have stained the annals of the times, and ignorance and infidelity still hold extensive sway; but when were the triumphs of the Cross more widespread or of the intellect more universal?

It is always easier, and, I am sorry to say, more natural to criticise than applaud, and there are those in whom this disposition is so strongly developed that nature seems inverted and their organs of vision located in the rear instead of the front of the head. With them whatever is, is wrong, and he who has the temerity to step beyond the boundaries of thought and action marked out by the progress of his ancestors is sacrilegious, if not parricidal. Fortunately these are not the leaders of our race. Fortunately man is ruled by an ever-operating law of development — a law as immutable as that which holds the earth in its orbit — and while at times, from extraneous causes, he may swerve from the right line of progression, he will ere long resume it again, just as the forest pine, bending to the blast, when the tempest subsides regains its erect position — still pointing towards heaven. This law of progressive development demands obedience from the institutions of man as well as from man himself. In fact, they must keep abreast of his ever-increasing wants and necessities, or be discarded among the effete rubbish of the past. To meet the demands of the immediate future this College will require a more ample endowment. Of course as the number of its students is enlarged its revenues will be increased; but this will prove inadequate to the demand. Other sources of supply must be reached, and my judgment points to that same source whence came its first endowment— the public domain. The act of 1862 evidenced an intelligent appreciation on the part of Congress of the wants and demands of the times. It was “a new departure” from the established policy of the Federal government as to the disposition of the public lands, for while in the organization of new States it had long been the wise rule to reserve a portion of the public lands for the purposes of education therein, this was the first instance in the history of the government when any portion of the public property had been apportioned among all the States, old as well as new, for this object. And it should be remembered, too, that this was done prior to the destruction of the labor system of the South and prior to the elevation of four millions of ignorant serfs to the enjoyment and responsibilities of citizenship. It was done, too, in the midst of war, and after war had again demonstrated the great superiority of an educated over an ignorant soldiery.

If this action were wise and patriotic then and under these circumstances, in what terms should we express our appreciation of such action now, when to the voices of wisdom and patriotism are added the earnest appeals of humanity and the stern demands of duty?

The war resulted in the emancipation of the negro; but no sooner had the sword been sheathed than the strife was transferred to the forum, and days and months — aye, even years — were spent in efforts to clothe the freedman with rights he could not understand, and load him with responsibilities which he was unable to comprehend. Statute after statute was enacted, and the fundamental law of the nation itself, repeatedly amended to establish the civil and political rights of the negro; but where, in the long catalogue of legislation, can be found any provision for his education and elevation even to a partial comprehension of the duties and responsibilities which these rights impose? Why did not the mental and moral necessities of these “wards of the nation” excite the same paternal solicitude as did their political condition? I shall not pause here, nor is it germain to my present purpose, to answer this very natural enquiry. The facts with which we have alone to deal at the present moment are that, although the negro was emancipated from physical slavery, he was left bound in the more terrible chains of universal ignorance; and that while the nation invested him with the glorious rights and privileges of American citizenship, it not only failed to make any provision for investing him with a knowledge of the high duties and responsibilities which that citizenship imposes, but left him in the depths of poverty and ignorance, to be educated, if educated at all, by the white people of those States whom the war had so utterly impoverished that they were unable to educate even themselves.

That this was unwise, unjust and impolitic, needs no words from me to demonstrate. In my opinion, the government should not only have provided the means for the education of these new suffragans, but it should have gone farther and aided the people of the South to fulfill this high and holy duty to themselves.

If it be true that one portion of the body politic cannot suffer in its mental, moral or physical condition without injury, more or less, to the whole, and if intelligence and virtue be necessary and desirable in the individual citizen of a republic, then the education of the whole people becomes a matter of public interest and national concern. I am, however, no advocate of a governmental system of education except by the States; but I do advocate the extension to all of the States the policy which has uniformly obtained in the organization of new States. The public lands are the common property of the whole people of the Union, held by it in trust for their benefit and behoof, and if there be reason and sound statesmanship in reserving a portion of this property for educational purposes in the sparsely populated but prosperous new States, does not the same reason and statesmanship, in a far higher degree, dictate the appropriation of a portion of this property to the education of the larger and poorer populations of the older States of the South?

But I do not go to the length of urging even this very just and correct view of the subject, based though it may be upon the soundest and most substantial and patriotic reasoning. All I seek and all I demand is equality with all of the other States of the Republic in this as in all other respects. I merely advocate the performance of what I believe to be a solemn and imperative duty by the Federal government to the black race and to the people of the whole country, and that duty consists in appropriating the entire proceeds derived from the sales of the public lands to educational purposes. And while I would devote a portion of these proceeds to the further endowment of colleges of this character, and the balance to the support and maintenance of free primary schools, I would so apportion all as to confer the greatest benefit upon the greatest numbers.

The details of the manner in which this duty shall be executed, whether this property shall be divided among the several States equally, or according to population or illiteracy, or upon what I should esteem the wiser, more comprehensive and equitable basis of present needs and prospective demands, and how much shall be apportioned to primary and how much to technical schools, may be safely confided to that Congress which shall possess the wisdom, the integrity and the patriotism to adopt this policy.

As one of its faithful friends and earnest advocates, I shall ever hold myself in readiness, with whatever of influence I may be able to wield, not only to secure the permanent establishment of this policy, but when established, to see to it that the State of my adoption, which has honored me with her highest and most sacred trusts, and whose soil is to be my future and final resting place, shall be dealt with as becomes her exalted position and high deserts. With these means, and through these instrumentalities, I shall hope to see this College raised to a higher dignity and a wider sphere of usefulness. If, however, from any cause these should fail, then the duty will devolve upon our people to supply the deficiency either by public aid or private munificence.

Railroads and other public improvements are of great use and benefit to the country, and the people have manifested their high appreciation of them by freely voting State, county and municipal aid for their construction and maintenance; but how insignificant in importance appears the growth and development of these temporal conveniences of man when compared to the education and elevation of his immortal mind? They are but the creations of the mind, and why should the creature be worshipped while the creator is neglected? Why strew all our votive offerings upon the altar of Baal, who is of the earth, earthy, and crumbles to decay, and minister not to the divinity within us which has immortality for its being and eternity for its portion? I have an abiding faith that when our people begin to understand the inestimable benefits which they may realize from this College they will rally to its support, and that in time it will become, what of right it ought to be, the great popular educational institution of the industrial classes of Virginia. I shall hope to see the barriers which poverty rears in the pathway of deserving youth broken down and obliterated, and education here made as free as the glorious mountain air which surrounds and pervades it. Yes! I would have graven upon its loftiest pinnacle, in characters of living light, “Whomsoever will let him come and partake of the waters of life freely.”

To you, the learned gentlemen composing the first faculty of this institution, I tender words of thankfulness and cheer — thankfulness for what you have already accomplished, and cheer at the prospects before you. The future is radiant with promise. You have carefully watched over and nurtured the infancy of this College; may you be spared to guide its youth and maturer years. I know of no higher or holier calling than yours. The teacher of youth is the moulder of the civilization of his time. He not only instills those great physical and moral principles which underlie the social fabric, but fashions the immortal soul for time and eternity.

“’Tis education forms the common mind,
Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined.”

But it is presumptuous in me, perhaps, to even suggest the extreme delicacy and tremendous import of your duties and responsibilities. I do so more to manifest my own appreciation of them than to impress you with any new convictions or loftier purposes. I know that your duties are as arduous and your labors as exhaustive as your intentions are earnest and your aspirations pure. I will turn, rather, and address those whom I feel more competent to counsel — the first matriculates of this College.

Young gentlemen, I suppose that you are all familiar with the aphorism that “knowledge is power;” but have you ever considered it critically? Have you ever thought how or wherein knowledge constituted an element of power? All learning is not knowledge, nor yet is all knowledge power. The world is full of learned fools and helpless wiseacres. Knowledge is power only when utilized. It is the knowing how to use and apply what we have acquired that gives us control of men and matter. This is the sovereign test of ability, whatever may be our acquirements or sphere in life. You may cram your heads full of the most abstruse knowledge; you may garner into them all the learning of all the ages and generations that have preceded you; you may even make of your minds vast store-houses of knowledge; and yet what will it avail you unless along with it you are possessed with the power to use it? Do you ask me what the power or ability is which enables us to utilize whatever is taught by experience, by books and the schools? I answer that it is thought, and that knowledge is power only as it incites, suggests and furnishes forth the materials for thought. As the corn which the farmer sows upon the ground prepared for its reception must needs have the warm and genial rays of the sun to quicken it into life and develop it to maturity, so knowledge must be fructified by thought to germinate and expand to useful results. The corn, however, will produce only its kind, while knowledge is not only reproductive, but it is also creative.

As in our own minds one thought suggests or begets another, so the thoughts of others which comprehend all knowledge, save our own individual experience, quickens and incites our minds to new thoughts and new creations. One achievement of one human intellect starts into activity perhaps an hundred others, each working out some new success, some further advancement and improvement. In this way one discovery or invention becomes the parent of numerous others, and in this way are the boundaries of human knowledge expanded and the civilization of man secured.

What a brood of inventions of the highest importance and the greatest usefulness followed the discovery of the nature and properties of steam! When James Watt was experimenting with his tea kettle and solving the problem of condensation, how little did he dream of the mighty revolution he was inaugurating. When Franklin tamed the lightnings of heaven, what conception had he of the glorious functions it was to execute for the benefit of man? How little do even we yet know of the capabilities of this mysterious agency? What we call thought is the product of the mysterious working of the human intellect, invisible, intangible, incomprehensible and useless, save only to their possessor, until clothed in language or embodied in substantial forms. In man's capacity for thought and expression of thought, lies his chief claim to superiority, and through its instrumentality must he fulfill his divinely appointed mission to subdue and have dominion over the earth. Every step he has taken, every advance he has made toward the accomplishment of this high purpose, has been the result of the exercise of this God given and God-like power, and its embodiment in one form of expression and another, forms the record of his achievements and constitutes the criterion of his success. It matters not whether these thoughts have found expression in the complicated machine, the lofty dome or glittering minnaret, whether they speak from the canvass, the living page, or the chiseled marble, they measure alike the progress of a people and the civilization of an age. We designate an age as Golden or Brazen, as Speculative or Utilitarian, according to the predominant thoughts and characteristics of each as they have come down to us through the medium of their different forms and modes of expression.

Ours has been denominated the Utilitarian, the Practical, the Material age. It is indeed not only one, but all of these. The prevailing currents of human thought and human activity are the practical, the useful, the material. Their multitudinous forms of expression are found graven upon the solid earth and coursing in the air we breathe, in the physical comforts and conveniences which surround us, and in the general uplifting of the people to a higher plane of social, moral and intellectual existence. No age has even equalled ours in the grandeur of its intellectual achievements and the magnitude of its material development. Go where you will, enter whatsoever domain of thought and knowledge you please, and everywhere you will behold the most unceasing mental activity crowned with the most astonishing results; results, too, in the main conducive to the benefit, the improvement, and the elevation of man. Truly ours is the utilitarian age — the age which is practically exemplifying the doctrine “that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the end and aim of all social and political institutions.”

Young gentlemen, these are some of the characteristics of the age in which we live, in which you are to act your several parts, in which you are to succeed or fail. Your education thus far has been utilitarian. You have been studying the practical, the useful, the material. You have been learning how to think, and to think practically. You have been acquiring knowledge, the power of which you are to exemplify in your future lives. Your acquisitions here have been such as will best fit you for those avocations of life which you intend to pursue. I have already indicated my opinion of their high character and great usefulness, as well as the necessity for a thorough system of training and education for those who intend to engage in them. You will compose the first Alumni of this College and the first exemplars of the benefits to be derived from the special course of instruction here pursued. As such you may contribute largely to the future success of your Alma Mater. As “a tree is known by the fruit it bears,” so the character and standing of a College are often determined by the character of its graduates. Permit me to express the hope that your future will be such as to reflect honor upon yourselves and credit upon this Institution. Recollect that

“Honor and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part: there all the honor lies.”

It has been said that there are but three ways of making a living, viz: by working, by begging, and by stealing; and, disguise it as we may, there is much of truth in the expression. Work is the common destiny of man. In the great hive of humanity there can be no drones. He who does not earn his bread by the sweat of his brow violates the divine anathema. No matter what one's sphere in life may be, honorable success is attainable only by work. The humblest artisan as well as the highest statesman bows to this inexorable law of our being.

You will assume the active duties of life at an interesting and trying period. A great change has been wrought in our social and political system, and the demoralization incident to a great war has not been fully overcome. Fraud and peculation have stained the characters of some high in authority, and its infection has not been altogether absent from the people. Although a healthier tone of public sentiment seems to prevail, it will require the efforts of good men and Christians everywhere to elevate it to that standard which alone insures safety and stability.

Judging from past experience, well may the poet exclaim:

“God give us men — a time like this demands
   Strong minds, great hearts, true faith, and ready hands;
Men whom the lust of office does not kill;
   Men whom the spoils of office cannot buy;
Men who have opinions and a will;
   Men who have honor; men who will not lie;
Men who can stand before a demagogue,
   And damn his treacherous flatteries without winking;
Tall men, sun-crowned, who live above the fog
   In public duty and in private thinking;
For, while the rabble in their thumb-worn creeds,
Their large professions and their little deeds,
Mingle in selfish strife, lo! Freedom weeps,
Wrong rules the land, and waiting justice sleeps!”