Winter Commencement

Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie speaks at winter commencement 2018.

Questioning truth

Trustees, Provost Robel, Congressman Hamilton, Mr. Rubenstein, Mr. MacKay, honored guests, colleagues, and members of the Class of 2018:

Half a century ago, the great political philosopher Hannah Arendt asked in her famous essay on "Truth and Politics", "Do facts, independent of opinion and interpretation, exist at all?"1

She went on, though, to answer this question most emphatically in the affirmative. Arendt argued that while events are open to interpretation, there is no excuse for blurring the dividing lines between fact, opinion, and interpretation.

She wrote: "Even if we admit that every generation has the right to write its own history … we do not admit the right to touch the factual matter itself."2 In other words, facts do exist and are beyond argument, dispute or opinion; and truth does matter.

The value of truth in a post-truth era

But it is claimed 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. We have seen political upheaval around the globe driven by wild claims and spurious statistics. And we have seen attacks on journalists who seek to report the truth and challenge corruption—as was underscored just this week when TIME magazine named as the 2018 Person of the Year a group of journalists who have been targeted, jailed, and in some cases, killed for their reporting work.

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

And 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.

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.

For thousands of years, truth has been a topic of the deepest enquiry 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

To England's first Poet Laureate, John Dryden, "Truth is the foundation of all knowledge and the cement of all societies."5

The arts and humantiies and responsible citizenship in the post-truth era

In today's complex world, the rigorous search for truth takes many forms. Embracing truth in our daily lives is not, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum has observed, merely a matter of gathering factual knowledge and utilizing logic. 6 Responsible global citizenship in the 21st century, she writes, requires "the ability to assess historical evidence, to use and think critically about economic principles, to assess accounts of social justice, to speak a foreign language, to appreciate the complexities of major world religions."7

In other words, responsible global citizenship requires an education that includes the arts and humanities. Many of you have received just such an education during your time at Indiana University. It has been an education—both wide-ranging and selectively deep—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. It is an education that aspires to truth.

Those of you who graduate today with advanced degrees have focused, in your time at IU, on disciplines that are concerned with particular truths—with discrete facts and the inferences supported by those facts. And, as you have undoubtedly learned, professionals in business, law, and the sciences must also embrace the arts and humanities for their value in helping us to better understand what it means to be human and to grapple with complex moral issues.

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, just as all three of our distinguished guests today—Mr. Rubenstein, Mr. MacKay, and Congressman Hamilton—have done.

The Class of 2018

You, the members of the Class of 2018, are superbly prepared to confront the challenges of the 21st century and to continue IU's 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.

IU Bloomington's Winter Class of 2018 includes graduates from 58 different countries, from 45 states and the District of Columbia, and from 64 of Indiana’s 92 counties. Our oldest graduate is 62, our youngest 20, and among today’s graduates are two sets of twins.

Many members of the Class of 2018 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 this event at some point in their college career.

This year, the IU Dance Marathon raised nearly $4.2 million, marking the third consecutive year that it has raised more than $4 million for Riley. 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

The great American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson 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."8

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 2018.

Source Notes

1. Hannah Arendt, "Truth and Politics," Originally published in The New Yorker, February 25, 1967, and reprinted with minor changes in Between Past and Future (1968) and The Portable Hannah Arendt, edited by Peter Baier (2000) and Truth: Engagements Across Philosophical Traditions, edited by Medina and Wood (2005). 

2. Ibid.

3. Plato, Republic, Book 6, 485.

4. Confucius, The Analects of Confucius, Annping Chin (translator), (Penguin, 2014).

5. 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.

6. Martha Nussbaum, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, (Princeton University Press, 2010), 95.

7. Ibid. 93.

8. 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.