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Pursuing truth at Yale

The Yale College Opening Assembly Address

Peter Salovey ’86PhD is the president of Yale. He delivered this speech—the Yale College Opening Assembly Address—to incoming Yale College first-years and transfer students on Cross Campus on August 22.

Mark Ostow

Mark Ostow

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Good morning. It truly is a thrill to welcome all of you, our entering students, and your family members, to campus for our Yale College Opening Assembly. Today is the official start of your undergraduate education at Yale, and on behalf of all my colleagues here on stage with me, we are delighted this day has arrived!

As you know, Yale’s motto is Light and Truth—Lux et Veritas in Latin, Urim v’Thummim in Hebrew—and you will see it etched ubiquitously on crests around campus. Today, I want to speak with you about the part of our motto we share with many other universities around the world through their mission, ethos, or culture: Veritas, or Truth.

For several years now, even as the world struggled to contain a public health crisis, we have witnessed the virulent spread of deceptive information, even outright lies. We have seen an assault on expertise, an assault on scientific and other scholarly findings—indeed, an assault on truth. Hardly a day passes without a report on someone who has discovered, in the comfort of his or her own home, that the scientific experts are wrong about COVID. Hardly a day goes by when someone on the Internet does not spin some new, fact-free conspiracy theory. Historical events we all know to be true are denied by individuals with nefarious motives.

Here are five brief examples:

• Earlier this year, some in our country, including those in positions of leadership, depicted a violent mob’s attempt to disrupt the most basic functioning of our democracy by denying an election outcome as “legitimate political discourse.”1

• As destructive wildfires, severe drought in some places, and historic flooding in others portend a catastrophic climate emergency, we see those faithful to unfounded skepticism disregard overwhelming scientific consensus. In some counties in the United States, half of the residents still do not believe global climate change is real.2

• In recent months, Vladimir Putin has propagated misinformation about rooting out Nazis as the motivation for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.3

• Social media platforms have been mobilized to incite or stoke ethnic violence by propagating falsehoods in countries like Myanmar and Ethiopia.

• And finally, a recent defamation trial focused on a notorious conspiracy theorist who claims that the murder of twenty school children and six adults in Sandy Hook, Connecticut—about a half-hour’s drive from here—was staged by the US government.

Of course, spreading misinformation is not new. History teems with the haunting consequences of lies.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt—on whom Yale bestowed an honorary degree in 1971—writes of some of humanity’s darkest chapters and the malignant regimes that authored them: “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist.” It is rather, Arendt continues, “people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” 4

Yes, malevolence can feast on the environment devoid of Veritas. And at stake, therefore, in the abiding search for truth is humanity itself.

For our part, colleges and universities must combat the spread of misinformation, propaganda, and conjured conspiracy theories first by supporting faculty; they generate scientific data and scholarly insight. Faculty must be free to disseminate knowledge and teach you to think critically about ideas and their sources.
But to do so effectively, our institutions of higher education—faculty and students—must be open to engaging with diverse ideas, whether conventional or unconventional, of the left or of the right. It is Yale’s obligation to address the credibility crisis, for we have long stood for the pursuit of truth and devoted ourselves to it.

Colleges and universities like Yale are home to artists, scholars, scientists, and practitioners who spend their entire lives searching for truth. Yet the growing polarization in society around ideas, whether embraced or eschewed by a particular faction, impedes this search, and threatens to erode public confidence in expertise, minimizing the impact of universities precisely when unvarnished truth is so desperately needed.

Faculty and students—indeed the university itself—will be viewed as reliable sources of information if we do not appear closed off to unpopular or otherwise nonmainstream ideas from thoughtful individuals responsibly articulated. Most Americans still have a positive view of universities and consider a college education important for future success. But confidence that higher education has a salubrious impact on society is eroded by a belief that we will not engage with ideas that challenge us.

Let me discuss a familiar example: that there has been a steady decline in the percentage of college students who believe the freedom to express unpopular points of view is secure. Actually, it is a myth that students do not want their campuses to be home to a broad range of perspectives. Recent opinion polling by the Knight Foundation confirms that most students believe it is more important to be exposed to all types of speech than to protect people by prohibiting offensive or biased speech.5 What some refer to as “cancel culture” is not the dominant ideology of students.

Here at Yale, which is home to the country’s oldest collegiate debate society, students across the political spectrum can engage in spirited, yet civil, discussions. Yale College students have selected Hillary Clinton ’73JD as a Class Day speaker and honored both George H. W. Bush ’48 and George W. Bush ’68 as Yale Undergraduate Lifetime Achievement Award recipients. And the university has hosted interactions between individuals with ideological differences, such as a recent conversation between Emily Bazelon ’93, ’00JD, and Ross Douthat, and another one among four former secretaries of state, Democrats and Republicans.

But let’s be frank. It can be difficult to articulate unpopular views on college campuses. That Knight Foundation survey I cited a moment ago suggests that only about half of all students feel “comfortable offering dissenting opinions.”

So, we need to build on an existing desire among students to engage each day—in classrooms, dining halls, and meeting spaces—with different viewpoints and to appreciate the importance of expressing their disagreement with one another.

Indeed, in a university setting, we must be able to distinguish—emphatically—legitimate dissent from outright deceit. We must make room for beliefs we find objectionable as faithfully as we reject falsehoods we know to be lies.

And we must, therefore, nurture a bias toward openness, even—and especially—when this ethos exposes us to points of view that test our most strongly held assumptions. Such a climate affords the search for truth—and the credibility necessary to trust it.

Of course, as we search for truth, we must also be mindful of the power and influence of institutions like Yale. We must recognize, with humility, that what looks like a truth might not be one. I think, for instance, of our own history: our resistance to coeducation for so long or our leadership at one time in eugenics. With power comes great responsibility. These disturbing realities are why some are reluctant even to use the word “truth” in describing our mission.

Nonetheless, at Yale, I have often observed our faculty actively encouraging students to interrogate data and other ideas presented to them, and I have seen students change their minds when confronted with contrary evidence. Every one of you will have that experience as part of your Yale education. I suspect you will have it often.

You can enroll in courses that bring together pairs of professors representing different disciplines, who model how looking at a problem from divergent perspectives can lead to new insights: a course on film taught by a film historian and a physicist, a course on the nature of choice taught by a philosopher and an economist, a course on transgender health taught by faculty members from American studies and the nursing school. Similarly, in a recent semester, three experts from across the political spectrum co-taught a course on the crisis of liberalism, covering the Obama and Trump presidencies.

We will continue to create opportunities like these for you to have open conversations about contentious, complex issues—opportunities rooted in the reality that no ideological bloc can claim ownership of truth; that facts pledge no fealty to any of our preferred conclusions. And, therefore, that evidence must guide the beliefs we hold rather than conform to them.

In considering this imperative, I am reminded of the book The Death of Truth, by Michiko Kakutani ’76—a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, an alumna of Yale College, and a champion of the sense of truth we seek to promote.

Kakutani’s stirring appeal for reason and objectivity concludes with an especially, if not unnervingly, relevant warning for our era issued by James Madison: “a popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.” Indeed, “without commonly agreed-upon facts,” Kakutani posits, “not Republican facts and [not] Democratic facts; not the alternative facts of today’s silo-world—there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office, and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled. The founders recognized this, and those seeking democracy’s survival must recognize it today.”6

I think, too, of James Hatch ’23—an extraordinary Yale undergraduate who spent over two decades with the Naval Special Warfare Command before returning to complete his college education. As he wrote, the climate at Yale “is one where most students understand that there has to be a place where people can assault ideas openly and discuss them vigorously and respectfully in order to improve the state of humanity.”7 Yale is committed to the responsibility of promoting the public’s trust in academic research, expertise, and the value of higher education, by ensuring that Mr. Hatch’s experience is typical of every student, every day, and in every classroom.

Philosophy 181 reflects this responsibility. In her course Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature, Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Tamar Gendler ’87 ties contemporary cognitive science, which has helped us to gain an understanding of how our minds operate, to the work of ancient philosophers. Students in her class consider anew Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which people mistake shadows on a wall for reality. Dean Gendler walks her students through this allegory to challenge them to consider this question: How do you discover truth given that the human mind is imperfect?

Of course, our limitations pose no impediment to the search for truth. For they are, in fact, what can power the curiosity necessary to sustain it. By embracing our humility, we can broaden our understanding.8

So, at Yale, we will not merely reaffirm what you already think as you arrive. We will, instead, provoke you to uncover all you do not know before you leave. We will fine-tune your ability to sift fact from falsehood, for the core of a liberal education is comprised of reason, logic, and critical thinking.

Soon, you will be the beneficiary of such an education. Yet, it behooves you also to be an active participant in it as students—and then, in due course, as alumni.
And so, today, as you begin your college career, I call on all of us to promote a truth-seeking climate at Yale—in every seminar, in every residential college, and in every late-night conversation—by being willing to entertain ideas with which we do not agree, by being willing to extend grace and assume positive intent, by listening carefully, by thinking deeply, and by speaking with empathy and understanding.
Let us, together, elevate the virtues of tolerance and engagement, and reject the culture of public shaming, doxing, and ostracism.

And, in time-tested tradition, let us strengthen the open discourse that has, for centuries, been a hallmark of our intellectual community at Yale—and that has produced the scholarship and scientific breakthroughs that have improved the world well beyond it.

By doing so, you can develop expertise—and also help to rescue its standing. You can, in an increasingly dark world, bring Veritas to Lux—Truth to Light. And, perhaps equally as vital in a fragmented world, bring Lux to Veritas—Light to Truth.
Welcome to Yale.   

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Footnotes
1 Doina Chiacu, “Republicans Censure Cheney, Kinzinger, Call Jan. 6 Probe Attack on ‘Legitimate Political Discourse,’” Reuters, February 4, 2022 [https://www.reuters.com/world/us/loyal-trump-republican-party-moves-censure-us-reps-cheney-kinzinger-2022-02-04/].

2 Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2021, February 23, 2022 [https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/].

3 Robyn Dixon et al., “On Victory Day, Putin Defends War on Ukraine as Fight Against ‘Nazis,’” Washington Post, May 9, 2022 [https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/05/09/russia-victory-day-putin-speech-ukraine/].

4 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 1951).

5 Knight Foundation, College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech 2022. January 25, 2022 [https://knightfoundation.org/reports/college-student-views-on-free-expression-and-campus-speech-2022/].

6 Michiko Kakutani, The Death of Truth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018).

7 James Hatch, “My Semester with the Snowflakes,” Medium, December 12, 2019 [https://directedstudies.yale.edu/news/james-hatch-my-semester-snowflakes].

8 See my 2022 baccalaureate address for more on this theme: https://president.yale.edu/president/speeches/intellectual-humility.

1 comment

  • Pawel Wojtasik
    Pawel Wojtasik, 2:04pm November 17 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This address by President Salovey is a thoughtful, passionate, and elegantly constructed argument for tolerance of diversity of views within the Academy and our society. It comes at a time when conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods are accepted by a large segment of the public as truth. Many are afraid to voice opinions for fear of causing offense and eliciting an angry reaction, or even being “cancelled.” The author brings in prophetic statements by Hannah Arendt, James Madison and others to warn us against dangers of confusing fact and fiction, the true and the false. The president’s speech is a call for a vigorous exchange of ideas, for being willing to engage with those we do not agree with, even when their ideas may seem outlandish. He posits reason, logic and critical thinking as tools for discovering truth, sift fact from fiction. I wonder what would those who consider faith as their source of truth say? Or artists or contemplatives? But perhaps these perspectives are secondary within an academic context.

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