Indiana University Bloomington Graduate Commencement

Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall
Bloomington, Indiana

Friday, May 04, 2018

IU President Michael A. McRobbie speaks at the IU Bloomington graduate commencement ceremony. Photo by James Brosher, IU Communications

The Pursuit of Truth

Trustees, Provost Robel, Dr. Hennessey, Dr. Pace, Dr. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, honored guests, colleagues, and members of the Graduate Class of 2018:

Just over 100 years ago, Indiana University's 10th president, William Lowe Bryan, wrote that, at Indiana University, "the body of scholars binds itself to the whole truth, which forever transcends any given formulation."1 Bryan often cited what he called the university’s “unworded oath of allegiance to the whole truth."2

More than a century later, Indiana University still holds fast to this allegiance to truth. Buttressing this allegiance is the knowledge that there are always new truths to be discovered in all fields, that the natural and social sciences will continually evolve in the direction of ever greater comprehension, and that advancement and improvement in all aspects of human life and human understanding is forever possible.

The pursuit of truth has been at the heart of the education that you have received at Indiana University. The disciplines you have studied during your time at IU are concerned with particular truths—with discrete facts and the inferences supported by those facts.

For thousands of years, truth has been a topic of the deepest inquiry by the greatest minds from every human culture and civilization.

The search for what is true knowledge is the underlying theme of all of Plato’s works. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that it is impossible to find anything more akin to wisdom than truth.3

The Chinese philosopher Kong Zi, better known as Confucius, wrote in his Analects that "The object of the superior [person] is truth."4

The great Italian Renaissance polymath, Leonardo da Vinci, wrote that "beyond a doubt, truth bears the same relation to falsehood as light to darkness."5

Truth is also an elemental component of our moral and ethical systems. We are taught from the earliest age to tell the truth—and doing so is regarded as a fundamental part of our relations with other people, not just for its pragmatic utility, but as a good in itself.

Truth and veracity are the very foundations of our society. In fact, England’s first Poet Laureate John Dryden described truth as "the cement of all societies."6

Our society has a vital need for those trained in truth and who have a reverence for truth. Our society needs policy-makers, scientists, public servants, business executives—the kinds of leaders you will become—who have an understanding of the elemental importance of truth.

The Challenge to Truth in a "Post-truth" Era

But we live today, as we hear on an almost daily basis, in a "post-truth" era. It is the indictment of our age.

Indeed, we have witnessed in recent years, a disturbing and increasingly widespread casual attitude toward the truth. We have seen rampant attacks on established knowledge and open hostility to verifiable facts. We have seen a fundamental rejection in some quarters of dispassionate rationality. And we have seen political upheaval around the globe driven by wild claims and spurious statistics.

The "post-truth" era, as historian Timothy Snyder writes, is characterized by "open hostility to verifiable reality, which takes the form of presenting lies and inventions as if they were facts."7

In sharp contrast to this chilling abandonment of reason, for 200 years Indiana University, as a great educational and research institution, has stood for—and will always stand—for truth. Truth - unembellished by artifice or equivocation.

While events are open to interpretation—and while we should revere as a virtue the ability to change one’s mind in the face of new factual evidence—there is no excuse for blurring the dividing lines between fact, opinion, and interpretation.

In this era that is too often characterized by blatant falsehoods and misrepresentation, it is important to remember on this day of celebration and reflection that facts do exist and are beyond argument, dispute or opinion; and that truth does matter.

Defense of Science

Unfortunately, the "post-truth" era brings with it a distrust of expertise. As General Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, wrote in The New York Times only days ago: "To adopt post-truth thinking is to depart from Enlightenment ideas, dominant in the West since the 17th century, that value experience and expertise, the centrality of fact, humility in the face of complexity, the need for study and a respect for ideas."8

This de-valuing of expertise has all too often led to a rejection of basic science. Citizens and policy makers in the United States and elsewhere have cast doubt on established scientific understanding, sidelined scientific evidence, or skewed scientific advice on the basis of political and economic concerns.

But the very Enlightenment ideals General Hayden described are at the heart of science—and science, evidence, the centrality of fact, and reason form the very foundation of a strong democracy. Ultimately, they keep our communities and families safe and healthy. And in this "post-truth" era, they are increasingly under attack.

Economists have estimated that between one-third and one-half of economic growth in the United States since the Second World War has resulted from basic scientific research. The cars and airplanes that brought your family members to this ceremony, the smartphones in your pockets, the energy that powers this arena, the clothes we wear, the food you and your families will eat as you celebrate this day together—all of these were developed and improved through scientific research.

Devising solutions to the grand challenges our society faces—challenges whose solutions have the potential to resolve or mitigate the most difficult and vexing problems of humanity—will depend on applying the power of logic and reason to extensive bodies of factual scientific information hard won over many decades.

Challenges such as finding efficient energy sources; strengthening cybersecurity; ensuring the supply of safe foods and fresh water; curing diseases and infections such as cancer, malaria, AIDS, and Ebola; and alleviating the threat of global pandemics will require individuals who are tirelessly dedicated to the search for truth—individuals like all of you, people with graduate training.

In his book, The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols, professor at the U.S. Naval War College, writes that "a modern society cannot function without a social division of labor, and a reliance on experts…. No matter what our aspirations, we are bound by the reality of time and the undeniable limits of out talent. We prosper," Nichols concludes, "because we specialize...."9

During your time in graduate school at Indiana University, you have specialized in a particular discipline, studying under outstanding faculty members who are experts in their fields—and who are scholars bound to the pursuit of truth. Regardless of your discipline, you have all experienced the deep sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, and achievement—that sense of exhilaration—that comes from recognizing and understanding previously unknown truths.

Your IU education has given you the knowledge, values, and habits of mind to distinguish reality from appearance, to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources, to understand what constitutes a valid argument, and to assess the evidence used to support a claim.

These same habits of mind will enable you to contribute in immensely important, transformative, and innovative ways to the prosperity and progress of this nation and the world.

Wherever Truth is Injured, Defend it

In 1841, the great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson told students at Maine’s Waterville College that "the one condition coupled with the gift of truth is its use."10

In his journals, he later wrote that one must uphold the truth with the greatest of energy, vigor and dedication.

"Wherever truth is injured," Emerson wrote, "defend it."11

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, the truths of centuries of enlightened progress.

Venerate the truth. Defend science and reason when they are attacked. Value the experience and expertise of others. Remain humble in the face of complexity.

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 Graduate Class of 2018.

Source Notes

1. William Lowe Bryan, "The Voice of the University," Indiana University Alumni Quarterly, Volume IV, January 1917,
2. William Lowe Bryan, "Patriotism for Indiana," written in 1917, from The Spirit of Indiana, (Indiana University Bookstore, 1917), 14.
3. Plato, Republic, Book 6, 485.
4. Confucius, The Analects of Confucius, Annping Chin (translator), (Penguin, 2014).
5. Leonardo da Vinci, The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Chapter XIX, 1168, Web, Accessed May 3, 2018, URL:
6. John Dryden, "A Character of Polybius and his Writings," in George R. Guffey, et. al. (eds.), The Works of John Dryden, Volume XX: Prose 1691-1698 De Arte Graphica and Shorter Works, (University of California Press, 1990), 23.
7. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, (Tim Duggan Books, 2017), 66.
8. Michael V. Hayden, "The End of Intelligence," The New York Times, Sunday Review, April 29, 2018, 1.
9. Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise, (Oxford University Press, 2017), 14.
10. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Nature of Man," An Oration delivered before the Society of the Adelphi, in Waterville College, Maine, Delivered August 11, 1841.
11. 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.