Bard College President Leon Botstein's Charge to the Class of 2019
Bard College held its one hundred fifty-ninth commencement on Saturday, May 25, 2019. At the commencement ceremony, Bard President Leon Botstein gave the following charge to the Class of 2019.
In 1938, Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist and staunch antifascist, won the Nobel Prize, the most coveted award in science. Fermi earned it for experiments he had done in 1934 bombarding uranium with neutrons. Fermi believed that he had created new elements that were heavier than uranium. But at the very end of the same year Fermi won the Nobel Prize, Lise Meitner (one of the often overlooked women geniuses in the history of science), Otto Frisch, and Otto Hahn proved that what had really happened was that the nucleus of uranium had been split in two through fission, creating nuclear fragments and releasing energy.
The Nobel Prize notwithstanding, Fermi got it wrong. When he read the paper in Nature that showed that he had misinterpreted the evidence, he was equally thrilled and a bit embarrassed. But he did not push back. He didn’t resist the evidence and did not defend his mistake. He embraced fission and became crucial to the effort to harness it during World War II. Fermi’s behavior was not unique. The 1959 Nobel Prize winner in biology, Arthur Kornberg, purified an enzyme that could duplicate DNA and thought it was responsible for the replication of DNA. But he was not quite right, and accepted the evidence that subsequently proved him wrong.
These two examples from the history of science form the basis of my charge to you, the graduating seniors and graduates of the Class of 2019.
The message I wish to communicate is to honor truth, but with modesty and humility. Retain a faith in the rigorous pursuit of knowledge, but cherish your capacity to keep an open mind. Acknowledge ambiguity and error without abandoning the idea that there are criteria that require us to distinguish between facts and lies.
There are truths that are universal and can be verified, just as there are claims about the world that can be determined to be false. And there are even more questions that are subject to conflicting and overlapping answers. But in the pursuit of knowledge and a deeper understanding of the world, a vital distinction between fact and fiction must be upheld.
We have become all too comfortable with the idea that who we think we are, how we define ourselves, and the groups with which associate determine our opinions and justify their validity. We are disdainful of others who disagree with us since we believe that there is no way to give one subjective view priority over another. Although experimental science offers a model for arriving at a shared and universal agreement about what is true and what is false, our world has been manipulated by “fake news.” The notion that all habits of mind are somehow prejudiced in a manner that none of us can escape or overcome ends up breeding intolerance. We seem justified in being accusatory, labeling our opponents and hurling insults as opposed to building a case and considering carefully opposing views. We submit to the allure of conspiracy theories.
Therefore, even in cases where there is no basis for doubt, evidence and argument fail to convince. Consider the controversy over vaccination. Even though the so-called science that argued for a link between autism and vaccination has been shown, repeatedly, to be fraudulent, large groups of otherwise literate, decent, and educated people cling to a lie, putting themselves, their children, and their neighbors at risk. They claim that hidden nefarious factors that lie outside the reach of evidence and critical scrutiny are responsible for a campaign to discredit their beliefs, thereby justifying their allegiance to fiction over fact.
The good news, small is at may be, is that we remain, sporadically, willing to agree on some things, despite differences in our cultural backgrounds, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. No one disputes that the Donation of Constantine was a forged Roman decree that was used later in history to justify the power of the popes, or that the artworks shown to have been painted by expert forgers—a long list that includes Michelangelo and Hans van Meegeren—are fakes. Often we rely on scientific evidence for that judgment. We accept that a counterfeit dollar bill can be identified beyond all doubt. And with the help of the Innocence Project, we have come to accept the forensic use of DNA to prove which individuals have been falsely accused and wrongly incarcerated.
At the same time, we still have failed to convince large segments of the population that the Holocaust was a fact and that the number of victims has not been exaggerated. Holocaust denial is still with us. The core text of modern anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is a fabrication, the work of a rabid Russian ideologue from 1905. Yet it is considered fact by millions of people all over the world. No evidence or argument seems to be able to convince people that a hidden conspiracy of Jews does not actually rule the world. The wonders of technology have helped fiction look ever more like fact.
There are many things that we do not know for sure, and some questions we may never answer completely. There are many matters that still await the disciplined effort to understand and verify or disprove explanations. And there are varying degrees of certainty. But most of what we see in that legendary film from 1939 about the “Old South,” Gone with the Wind, is myth and distortion—embarrassing efforts to glorify the Confederacy and minimize the horror of slavery. Bryan Stevenson’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, helps expose the deceitful myths in Margaret Mitchell’s novel and the even more famous film. Historical myths based not on fact but legend and protected by careful omission demand exposure through research and evidence. Consider the fact that, long hidden from view, the landed gentry in the North, on this river, such as the owners of Montgomery Place, now part of Bard’s campus, were slave owners.
There are, of course, beliefs, values, and principles concerning religion and art that often rely on taste and faith alone. About such issues we may, in the end, just have to agree to disagree. But the times we live in demand that we fight for the shared and universal standards of evidence and for language that help us separate fact from fiction. We cannot allow those who fear the pursuit of the truth to deprive us of our freedom of speech and inquiry and suppress the advancement of knowledge. Our political life cannot be based on fantasies and deceptions, particularly ones that assert that America, or England, were once “great” and now require a restoration. To what bygone greatness do these people refer? America before the end of legal segregation? England committed to a colonial empire?
As we fight an avalanche of willful ignorance and deceit in the public realm, we must be restrained by humility. We must be aware of our own fallibility. The skills of critical thinking, reasoned argument, careful listening, close interpretation, and receptivity to new evidence and ideas are at the heart of the education you have received at Bard; they are the core of the achievement represented by the diploma you are about to receive. But these very skills will, from time and time again, prove you wrong, forcing you to shed a cherished beautiful belief for an ugly fact.
Freedom, individuality, and democracy can only be created and sustained by a politics that nurtures and protects the search for truth and encourages all of us to accept disturbing truths and reject reassuring falsehoods and lies. The task facing us is framed by the fact that we, not only here in the United States but all over the world, are surrounded by mendacious politicians and avaricious and unscrupulous giant technology companies, and manipulated by a mass of electronic communication that encourages us to hide behind mere prejudice, to cling to unexamined absolutes, to resist argument and research, to deny evidence, and, above all, to refuse to consider anything that runs contrary to our instincts and unexamined beliefs. We are content not to converse with others and are happy to engage only those who agree only with like-minded people whose worldview matches our worldview. We feign certainty by asserting moral superiority, and we conform to ready-made rhetoric and fixed ideologies.
As you go forth from this campus, I urge the members of the Class of 2019 to take away from Bard the courage to think independently, to contest claims in search of the truth, to speak without jargon, and to resist imposed orthodoxies, and to do so with the willingness not only to doubt but with a willingness to be convinced. I urge you all to engage, with respect and patience, those who disagree and those who cling to beliefs that are actually false.
So, remember Fermi. Take pride not only in your achievements but also in your capacity to accept that you have been wrong. On matters of faith and values, help others to live side by side in peace with those who share different values. I hope the Class of 2019 will take its place in our political life on the side of the fight against falsehood and the use of lies to justify greed, prejudice, fear, and intolerance. Go out into the world in the spirit of Enrico Fermi and the ideals he shared about research, scholarship, and learning that have always guided your alma mater, Bard College. Congratulations.
Post Date: 05-25-2019