Winter Commencement 2017: Diffusing light and truth at Indiana University

Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana

Saturday, December 16, 2017

IU President Michael A. McRobbie delivers his address at the 2017 Winter Commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 16 at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Photo by James Brosher, IU Communications

Two centuries of light and truth at Indiana University

Mr. Luddy, Maestro Summers, Professor Emerita Andrews, Trustees, Provost Robel, honored guests and colleagues, and members of the Class of 2017:

For nearly 200 years, Indiana University has been committed to educating the sons and daughters of Indiana—and students from all across the nation and around the world—at the highest levels of quality. This commitment to enlightening the minds of students and imparting truth through knowledge is at the heart of Indiana University and is embodied in the university’s motto—lux et veritas, “light and truth.”

The need for englightenment

Light has long been used as an analogy for education.

In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, education is the transition from darkness to light.

Thomas Jefferson often employed light as a metaphor when expressing his desire to see education made widely available. “I look to the diffusion of light and education,” he wrote in 1822 “as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue, and advancing the happiness of (mankind).”1

As Jefferson’s words suggest, education brings light not only to individuals, but to the whole of our society.

More than a century ago, Indiana University’s 10th president, William Lowe Bryan, told graduates at a ceremony much like this one that “what society needs from the university is complete enlightenment.”2 Bryan went on to describe how the physical sciences had become indispensable to the life and well-being of the people. He spoke of how the work of scholars can and should inform public policy, combat pestilence, and contribute to international peace.

Today, universities like IU find cures for diseases and provide leaders for businesses. They develop transformative innovations like the Internet; preserve the knowledge of humankind in libraries and in digital repositories; and disseminate this knowledge through teaching.

And they continue to diffuse light and truth, reflecting them in all directions to serve the public good.

The value of truth in a post-truth era

The concepts of light and truth are, of course, intimately related.

The great African-American social reformer, Frederick Douglass, said in the late 1800s that “Education… means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul …into the glorious light of truth.”3

You graduate today into what has been called the “post-truth era”—a time in which there is a disturbingly widespread casual attitude toward the truth. We have recently witnessed rampant attacks on established knowledge; a fundamental rejection in some quarters of basic science and dispassionate rationality; and political upheaval around the globe driven by wild claims and spurious statistics.

But as a great educational and research institution, Indiana University stands for truth; truth unembellished by artifice or equivocation; truth plain, simple and unadorned.

For nearly two centuries, Indiana University has been guided by the principles that facts do exist and are beyond argument, dispute or opinion; and that the truth does matter. For truth and veracity are the very foundations of our society.

Truth is an elemental component of our moral and ethical systems. “Telling the truth” is regarded as a fundamental part of our relations with other people, not just for its pragmatic utility, but as a good in itself. It is something we are all taught from the earliest age. And the ability to change one’s mind in the face of new evidence, of new true facts, is prized as one of the most revered of all virtues.

Truth, too, is fundamental to science. We rely every day on the truth of certain scientific principles, even to the point that we take them for granted. When we travel on an airplane, seek the care or a physician, or even enter an arena like this one, we trust that the principles of aerodynamics, the foundations of science-based medicine, and the laws of physics are true.

And, of course, truth has been a vital cornerstone of the kind of education you have received at Indiana University. It has been both wide-ranging and selectively deep. It is an education in logic and reason, in the analytical and the beautiful, in the past and the present. It is a broad education in a wide range of subjects that are central to understanding the human experience. In short, it is an education that aspires to truth.

Our society has a vital need for those with such an education—for those trained in truth and who have a reverence for truth. Devising solutions to the grand challenges our society faces—challenges whose solutions have the potential to resolve or to mitigate the most difficult and vexing problems of humanity—will depend on applying the power of logic and reason to extensive bodies of factual information hard won over many, many decades. Our society needs policy-makers, scientists, public servants, business executives—the kinds of leaders you will become—who have an understanding of the importance of truth.

The Class of 2017

You, the members of the Class of 2017, are superbly prepared to confront these challenges and to continue this tradition of the dedicated and unremitting search for truth. The range of your achievements at Indiana University is testimony to the time you have invested so diligently in your education and to all that you have learned.

Your class—the IU Bloomington class of 2017—includes graduates from 24 different countries, from 43 states and the District of Columbia, and from 72 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Our oldest graduate is 66, our youngest 20, and among today’s graduates is one sets of twins.

Many members of the Class of 2017 have helped to improve the quality of life for citizens of this country and for people around the world during their time as students at Indiana University.

More than a third of you have traveled around the world for your studies, embracing the world in all its diversity, and not shunning it or closing it off.

Many of you have helped to raise money for IU scholarships through your participation in one of our great traditions, the Little 500, and you have raised record amounts in support of the Riley Hospital for Children through your participation in and leadership of the IU Dance Marathon, one of the largest student philanthropic events at any university in this country. More than 15 percent of IU Bloomington students have been involved in the event at some point in their college career.

This year, the IU Dance Marathon raised a record $4.2 million. This is a remarkable achievement that will benefit countless children and families who receive treatment at one of the nation’s leading pediatric hospitals. Great credit is due to all of the students who worked so hard to make this event such a stunning success.

Wherever truth is injured, defend it

In 1838, the great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson called on students at Dartmouth College to, in his words, “explore, and explore, and explore”4  the star-lit landscapes of truth.

In his journals, he later wrote that it is not enough to search for truth; one must also uphold it with the greatest of energy and diligence.

“Wherever truth is injured,” Emerson wrote, “defend it.”5

In the same spirit, graduates, whenever truth is denied, speak for it.

Wherever truth is concealed, strive to discover it.

As graduates of Indiana University, you have been preparing for years to become the next generation to discover, to understand, and to apply all that you have learned.

As you leave this ceremony and begin to use the knowledge and skills you have acquired to become the leaders of tomorrow, I call on you to renew your commitment to be the standard-bearers of truth.

Bolstered by the motto of your alma mater, lux et veritas, light and truth, may you appreciate and tirelessly defend the truths we now possess.

And may you, in this “post-truth era,” speak for truth and defend it against those who would distort, discredit, and defame it.

Congratulations and best wishes again to the Class of 2017.

Source notes

  1.  Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Camden Blatchly, October 21, 1822.
  2. William Lowe Bryan, “The Coming of the University,” IU Commencement remarks delivered June 24, 1908, reprinted in The Spirit of Indiana, (Indiana University Bookstore, 1917), 47.
  3. Frederick Douglass, “Blessings of Liberty and Education,” Remarks delivered on September 03, 1894 in Manassas, Virginia.
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Address to the Literary Societies of Dartmouth College, delivered July 24, 1838.
  5. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (editors), Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations, Volume 3, (Reprint Services Corp., 1998, 1910), 269.