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A Real Convocation Speech?

Last June we reported on Phil Hanlon’s talk with a student group, the Thought Project, in which he made the following statement:

So, let me, sort of, throw out something provocative, which I thought was interesting. So, there’s, at the Trustee meeting last November, we also had some external expert come to talk to us, and we had Michael Dimock, who is the President of the Pew Research Foundation, who does research on lots of different topics, and we asked him to paint a picture of the Class of 2029. Tell us what that class is going to look like.

And I think what he, the thing that struck people the most in what he said, is that one of the most powerful trends right now is how your generation views authority, so in, specifically, that your generation is crowdsourcing authority, rather than relying on traditional authorities.

So, in other words, not so interested in the New York Times, or the New York Times restaurant critic, rather go to Yelp to figure out what’s the best place. So, in other words he was painting a picture as this continues on, of a new form of authority, where experts are no longer viewed as an important, good source of authority, and crowdsourcing is viewed as a source of authority.

And if you think about what that says, that’s a shocking thing in higher education, because we are selling experts, right? Like you said, the person in front of the room. That’s the expert. Well, if the people you are talking to don’t really care if they are taught by experts, then that’s a whole new, you know, kind of crisis for us. So. But I don’t know what you guys think about that? Is that, is his, sort of, prediction is valid, or is that just nonsense?

An interesting observation, I think. Especially given that the current occupant of the White House seems to have little regard for knowledge derived from serious research and analysis.

I had always hoped that Phil would follow up on these remarks. After all, college presidents enjoy a built-in respect, and Phil could certainly use the bully pulpit of the Dartmouth Presidency to generate the intellectual sparks that he seems to want for the campus. In fact, a good place to do so would be Convocation, but Phil cancelled that public ceremony a couple of years ago.

Such a retreat, however, is not the rule everywhere. Yale President Peter Salovey addressed the question of false narratives in his speech to Yale’s incoming class last September. Some excerpts:

Peter Salovey.jpgIt is not my purpose today to mock the biggest “whoppers” or award “Pinocchios” for the biggest distortions. Rather, I am only hoping to persuade you that advocates on any side of a question can be tempted to exaggerate or distort or neglect crucial facts in ways that serve primarily to fuel your anger, fear, or disgust.

If I am correct, then an important aspect of your education here will be learning how to recognize and address these kinds of accounts. In the course of that, you should pay especially close attention to the narratives that seem to align best with your own beliefs. To the extent you hold strong political or cultural or religious or economic beliefs, you will simply be like all the rest of us if you gravitate toward explanations that seem to provide confirmation for those beliefs or to demonize those who hold different ones…

So, you are now embarking on an ambitious and hopeful effort to understand the world, your place in it, and what you can contribute to forward progress. How can you address the seductive power of false narratives, especially in a time when grave mistrust on many sides seems to be fueling ever more of them?

It will not surprise you that I am highly aware of false narratives circulating about students like yourselves and higher education in general. I have a thick shelf of contemporary books assuring me that students at elite universities are merely excellent sheep, that a liberal arts degree is a ticket to unemployment, that truly inspired and courageous learners drop out of college to found tech companies, that millennials cannot make decisions without consulting their parents, that college professors have uniform political views, that students these days are fragile hothouse flowers, that it is not possible to achieve an inclusive campus culture without giving up on free speech, and that our colleges and universities are cut off from reality.

In response, I want to claim that your Yale education will not only enlarge your imagination, advance your knowledge, and propel your career, but also that it will be absolutely critical to your capacity for playing a positive, leadership role in these increasingly polarized and fractious times. In particular, you are about to be taught by outstanding teachers and mentors, whose lives and careers constitute a powerful witness for the value of a disciplined, reasoned, and careful search for light and truth.

What unites our faculty (from engineering to economics to English to environmental studies) is a stubborn skepticism about narratives that oversimplify issues, inflame the emotions, or misdirect the mind. No one is free of biases, of course, but as a community of scholars we subscribe to the ideal of judicious, searching inquiry in the service of reasoned discourse about the matters we investigate and care about the most. We would be lost as academics without this ideal, and our global societies would be lost if universities stopped being places defined by this ideal.

Good thoughts, n’est-ce pas? Salovey defines critical thinking — one of Phil’s touchstones — better than Phil ever has. But then Phil doesn’t even try. What a loss for the College.


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