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"Challenge and Test Ideas"

Convocation Address by President James Wright

Members of the class of 2008, you assembled here as individuals just a few short weeks ago. You now assume the additional privileges and responsibilities associated with being members of this community. Dartmouth is a historic and special community, one physically rooted on this plain along the Connecticut River, even as it reaches "round the girdled earth...."

Today I want to talk about two values that are central to our academic purpose even as they are sometimes in tension with each other: our commitment to freedom of expression and our obligation to foster here a truly inclusive community.

Susan Wright and President James Wright chat with incoming students at the dinner for first-years held last month at the Wrights' home.
Susan Wright and President James Wright chat with incoming students at the dinner for first-years held last month at the Wrights' home. (photo by Joe Mehling '69)

This is an academic institution marked by a need to know, a passion to share what we know, and a curiosity about what we do not know. It depends upon shared values, a shared sense of purpose, and the assumption of shared responsibility....

Learning is about expanding that which we know and also challenging that with which we are comfortable. College years-and, ultimately, full lives-are about testing our convictions, exploring our doubts, and engaging in debate and dialogue; these years are about challenges to certainty. Often the most fundamental dialogue is-or, at least, should be-with oneself. But such introspection can only follow exposure to ideas different from the ones you have brought with you. Now the opportunities for such exposure surround you.

An academic community-indeed, a free society-rests on the freedom to think and to speak out. The free expression of ideas is a bedrock principle, even though not all that is thought or said is equally valid or true. The corollary of the freedom of speech is the freedom to criticize that which is said. And sometimes this freedom to disagree becomes an obligation. If politeness and civility and mutual respect form the basis of our community, so too do engagement and debate and, assuredly, disagreement. Academic communities at their best are places that challenge more than they reinforce.

Dartmouth needs to be a place where arguments and assumptions and conclusions are tested-and then tested some more. This is as it should be. Dartmouth students are incredibly generous and willing to serve, concerned about moral and ethical dilemmas, and supportive of one another. Yours is a good generation; the future is in good hands.

You are also for the most part incredibly polite. This is a good thing, but politeness and tolerance need not lead to a sort of intellectual or moral relativism that discourages you from challenging ideas with which you disagree. Discuss and debate. Do not accept the uninformed or the glib or the foolish as having equal validity with sound argument and the view well crafted, with the position shaped by explicit values and principles and informed by evidence, thought, and understanding.

As a historian, I regret the decline in American life of true dialogue and debate on fundamental matters. Our society segments itself too readily into enclaves marked by likemindedness. Those times when we engage in debate about real differences, or expose ourselves to those differences, are all too rare in our society. We watch television stations, listen to talk shows, read publications, and journey to websites where what is presented serves only to reinforce what we already think rather than to challenge our views. Attitude and ideology become more important than analysis and fact. Ideas are not things that prevail without context and contest. They need to be challenged and tested. Otherwise, they stand at best as attitude or opinion-or as prejudice.

The current election campaign underlines and sadly exemplifies my concern. There is a tremendous free range of ideas in this country, unfettered by law or convention. In this respect, we have met the highest hopes of the political leaders and philosophers who founded the republic. But we surely have not met their ambitions for informed debate. Thomas Jefferson talked about the "boisterous sea of liberty." The American people deserve-and, indeed, need-a more substantive engagement of the real issues that confront our nation and our world. Discussions and calculations about red states and blue states, about tactics and polls, about funds raised and spent, about personal biography, as well as vicious smears that are cloaked in the wink of innuendo-these reduce the great issues of a great republic to a board game. The loser will not be one or another candidate. We shall all lose because we will have allowed ourselves to be distracted from matters of substance. We deserve better, but we will have it only by taking on the civic responsibility of insisting upon better.

The long-term health of our political system depends upon the engagement of the young-upon your engagement. Your freedom to do as you wish with your life entails a cost: a responsibility to advance and enhance the life of the republic. Our history is full of the evidence of those who have paid the greatest price for you to have this gift. Talk to one another about the issues of the present political campaign. I suspect you will do a better job of wrestling with the profound issues of our time than the campaigns of any of the candidates now standing before us promise to do. Debate the ideas, not the personalities. The candidates will want to persuade you to accept their vision of the future; but remember, this is your future they are discussing.

How do we engage in rigorous discussion of real issues in an atmosphere of respect and civility? How do we debate and disagree and challenge and still make this a community that is welcoming to all?...

This brings us full circle. It writes large our own task. At Dartmouth, no code or regulation restrains the right to the free expression of ideas. If it did, we would lose something critical to our intellectual purpose and to our core values. But as a place of learning, the College too has a right-indeed, a responsibility-to champion those ideals that shape us. We stand for certain fundamental things: the rigorous pursuit of knowledge and an openness to new ideas, academic freedom and a spirit of inquiry, integrity and honesty, individuality and inclusiveness. We are sustained by vigorous discourse, as well as by respect and civility.

Now, your right to challenge these values, or any others, is clear. But as president, I assume the obligation to define and defend them and to protect here a learning community that welcomes us all-a community where, regardless of our race or gender or sexual orientation, we are all respected and valued, and one in which different political and religious views are encouraged.

Some critics suggest that the academy is marked by a particular orthodoxy, a "political correctness," although these same critics are frequently the most certain, even absolute, about truths-about what we should learn and about how we should know. If sometimes we seem more certain than we have a right to be, we also understand that the world is marked by change and the tensions that often and necessarily follow change are seldom so simple as to be resolved by slogans. We recognize well the elusiveness of the truth that we consistently seek. Standing for something while resisting the comfort of orthodoxy is complicated, but it is a necessary part of our work.

As we welcome you into this academic community, I enjoin you to embrace both the free expression of ideas and the principle of community. It won't always be easy to balance them, but the struggle to do so is a fundamental part of a Dartmouth education.

[Full text of President Wright's Convocation address.]

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Last Updated: 5/30/08