Remarks by Pres. Margee Ensign
Sept. 2, 2018
In a few minutes—those of you here who are our newest Dickinson students—will be asked to sign the Dickinson pledge. That pledge is a formal recognition of your membership in this college, and it is a pledge to uphold the principles and purposes for which this college stands. Proudly stands. Chief among those principles is “the advancement of learning,” and fundamental to that advancement of learning is, of course, a respect for, and a love of, truth.
The search for truth in 1783, in the full flower of the Enlightenment, was exciting, passionate and demanding. Never was it easy. Never was it without controversy. Nor is it easy today, in spite of the astonishing technological success which has opened so many windows on the world for us.
One of those most apparent triumphs has been the extraordinary ease with which information is now disseminated. The world’s information is at our fingertips—but as we all know, not all of that information is reliable. Not all of it informs. Some of it is “false news.” Some of it is “disinformation.” Some of it “alternative facts.” And of course, some of it is simply quite innocently mistaken or incorrect.
To search for truth today means we must be able to successfully negotiate the rapids of information which gush forth from all sorts of sources, legitimate and illegitimate. Part of what a college education must teach is rigor in distinguishing truth from mistakes, and from lies.
Recently, the former mayor of the City of New York, a graduate of NYU Law School, went on national television to tell us that “truth isn’t truth.”
On the face of it, this was a moment worthy of George Orwell who explored such an idea in his classic novel 1984. Telling the truth mattered to Orwell; using words to deliberately hide or distort the truth, was detestable. He invented the idea of “Newspeak” precisely to warn us about “alternative truths.”
But—let us consider the question of “truth.”
It seems to me that the problem illuminated by Mayor Giuliani’s remark—a problem that has marked American political, intellectual and cultural life for some time—is not a disdain for truth in the abstract.
We all believe in truth with a capital T. The problem is how to distinguish fact from opinion, truth from error and truth from lies. The challenge, our challenge, is to develop the skill to do this.
And what better topic might we consider at the opening convocation of one of America’s oldest liberal-arts colleges?
Dickinson can trace its intellectual roots back to Socrates and his unrelenting demand that we examine and challenge what we hold to be true. One of the delights of reading Socrates (as Plato recalls him, anyway) is in watching how he demolishes self-righteous certainty, “correct” views.
And we’re still at it today. The challenge is that there isn’t a person here who isn’t quite convinced that her or his ideas are, fundamentally, correct and that competing ideas, values, policies and views of the world, are mistaken, are “incorrect.” Be honest: when was the last time you changed your mind on an important issue that truly mattered to you.
As the heirs of Socrates, what we do here at Dickinson is to challenge comfortable assumptions. This process is often painful and unpopular. Most of Socrates’ victims found having their cherished beliefs challenged embarrassing. Confusing. Infuriating. Unpatriotic. Immoral. In the end, asking too many questions got Socrates killed.
To the extent that we follow in his footsteps, as we should, we engage in dangerous work.
Like Socrates, we, too, want to uncover the truth—the truth about the human world and about the natural world. We want to know the truth because true knowledge gives us the power to shape our world. If you get it right, you can achieve your goals. If you get it wrong, failure, and sometimes disaster, ensues. History is littered with examples of both.
When we truly understand disease and how to prevent people from contracting ebola or malaria or measles, we can save their lives. If we truly understand the laws of astrophysics we can see to the ends of the visible universe.
With humans, too, we try to find out what is “true,” what account best accords with the observable world. In this we succeed more often than you might suspect.
We know, for example, that when women become educated they tend to have fewer children, and that those children are more likely to survive. We have the data. We know that life expectancy has risen worldwide to the extent that it has now reached 70 years of age. We know that when Dickinson was chartered 235 years ago, estimates are that more than 90 percent of the world’s population was desperately poor. Today it is less than 10 percent—and that level is shrinking. Amazing! And true. All of this progress has only been possible because we can distinguish fact from fiction, truth from error. And truth from lies.
Here at Dickinson we take ethics very seriously. The college is deliberately building ethical discussions into our whole curriculum. We do so because ethics and an abhorrence of deliberate falsehood lies at the heart of the intellectual enterprise. Because falsehood undermines science. It undermines trust. It undermines our ability to work with one another, to govern effectively and justly.
One of the very great strengths of a liberal-arts college such as Dickinson is that we understand and we honor the rigorous search for truth. We understand how challenging that search is, and how vital. We engage in that search here, and we help our students to understand, value and participate in that search.
One of the reasons that we demand that our students not only specialize (i.e., “major” in a subject) but also study a wide variety of disciplines is to pry minds open, to wean us all from the tyranny of received wisdom, unquestioned assumptions, and lazy habits of thought. To understand that different questions require different sorts of evidence.
One of the reasons we promote interdisciplinary work here is that by looking at a problem from different disciplinary perspectives, we bring different truth seeking and truth evaluating methodologies to bear on complex subjects. Our goal is that all of us, the whole community, get better at making the difficult distinctions between evidence and opinion, between good evidence and shoddy or incomplete evidence, good sources and bad sources, between truth, opinion and falsehood.
Dickinson students learn this in our classrooms and laboratories, studios, athletic fields and on our stages. They learn this by engaging in civic projects. They learn this on our farm, in participating in the arts, in internships. They learn it by interacting with and learning from a wide variety of people unlike themselves, here on our campus, in our local community, in other parts of the nation and throughout the world. From people with different opinions, from people who may very well see different truths entirely.
We hope that our graduates will leave us with heightened curiosity, with the intellectual discipline to challenge all received wisdom and the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, the truth from the mistake and the lie.
Since the founding of this nation, Dickinson College has been educating leaders dedicated to creating a more just and equitable society, a more perfect union. Such leadership calls for rigor of thought, ethical grounding, tolerance, and certainly, most certainly, it calls for a love for truth.
That’s who we are. That’s what we do.
At the time the liberty bell that I am about to ring was cast, it symbolized a newly won freedom for America’s 13 founding colonies. Today it reminds us how precious our freedom is, how rare and how fundamental it is to everything we do here. The freedom to search for and to proclaim the truth.