David Ignatius addressed the Woodberry Forest School community on September 19, 2019, as the forty-sixth speaker in the Fitzpatrick Lecture Series. An opinion writer for the Washington Post and the author of ten best-selling spy novels, Mr. Ignatius shared not only his expertise on international affairs, but also his own prep school experience. In his introduction of Mr. Ignatius, Luke Stone ‘20 said, “Before he became an award-winning reporter, columnist, and author, David Ignatius was just like us, though ninety minutes to our north. He spent his formative years in Washington, D.C., and graduated from St. Albans School in 1968.”
In his remarks to the students and faculty assembled in Bowman Gray Auditorium, Mr. Ignatius talked about his time at St. Albans. He gained his audience’s attention when he noted that during his time on his alma mater’s football team, St. Albans beat Episcopal High School. “Schools like Woodberry Forest and my own school exist to develop character,” he said. “Character means choosing the hard right over the easy wrong.”
David Ignatius recounted his career, which began after he graduated from Harvard College and studied Economics at King’s College, Cambridge. He served as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, covering the United Steelworkers union. “I fell in love with my job,” Mr. Ignatius said. “Over the many decades since then, I’ve covered wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and covered the State Department and the intelligence community.”
He went on to speak of “the paradox of our simultaneous mastery of the economy and the dysfunction of our political system.” Trained as an economist, Mr. Ignatius said he believes in the market economy and the ability of business in the United States to solve problems. But he contrasted that success with the inability of the U.S. legislature to pass legislation, the thousands of false claims made by the executive branch, and the role of the media in inflaming divisions. He shared polling results describing a public exhausted by news coverage of the current political situation and presented research explaining why facts often don’t persuade people to change their opinions. The problem, he said, begins with confirmation bias, “the process where we sift information, whether it’s in advertising or in the political domain, and hold onto the facts that confirm our biases without consciously realizing we are doing it.” Confirmation bias leads to increasingly extreme views, pulling public opinion away from the center and producing political gridlock.
Having just days earlier returned from Hong Kong where he reported on pro-democracy protests, Mr. Ignatius concluded his talk by returning to the idea of character. He expressed admiration for the millions of protestors who are putting aside their fears of retaliation by the Chinese government because of their belief in freedom and democratic ideals. “I encourage all of you to do what you can to look at the facts, let your point of view be challenged, and find an American version of what I was witnessing on the streets of that Asian city.”
The Fitzpatrick Lecture Series began in 1975, made possible by the gifts of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Fitzpatrick of New Orleans, Louisiana. Their four sons, Whitfield ’60, the late Peter ’64, Vaughan ’67, and James ’74, have made financial contributions to the lecture series. Two Fitzpatrick grandsons, Gustave ’93 and Fletcher ’98, also attended Woodberry. The late Mr. Fitzpatrick was an associate editor of the Wall Street Journal, executive editor and director of Landmark Communications, and editor of the New Orleans States. He received the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished editorial writing. Mr. Fitzpatrick served on the Woodberry Forest School board of trustees from 1975 to 1981 and was named an honorary alumnus in 1982.
The Fitzpatrick Lecture Series brings notable speakers to campus each year for a speech that focuses on politics, history, or public affairs. Past Fitzpatrick lecturers include civil rights leader James Farmer, presidential candidate Ralph Nader, astronaut Fred Haise, and North Korean defector and human rights activist Yeonmi Park.