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Valedictory to the Graduating Students

June 11, 2017

Graduates! You’ve done it! Four years of hard work and determination with a little partying and a lot of support from your family, friends, faculty and staff along the way have brought you to this day. Congratulations as you depart Hanover to take up new challenges!

Departure means you’re packing – or you should be thinking about packing if you haven’t already. Taking inventory of the most treasured belongings you wish to take with you. Forty years ago, I was the one taking that inventory, though it wasn’t until many years later that I fully understood that the most prized possession I would take with me from Dartmouth was in my head.

The story actually starts a few years earlier, within a month of my arrival at Dartmouth. It’s a moment I’ll remember forever – getting back the very first paper that I’d written in a course at Dartmouth. There emblazoned at the top was a “D-” with a comment from my professor that read, “Before you start to write, try to figure out what you think about anything.”

My initial reaction was to think that the minus was a bit gratuitous – the “D” already conveyed the essential message.

But I was haunted by that comment. So I made an appointment to see my professor, who like all Dartmouth faculty was nurturing and cared deeply about my success as a student. He said something like this. “The liberal arts tradition demands that you learn to think critically. That means you approach every question with an open mind. You must gather all available evidence from a diverse set of sources, with a recognition that history informs the present and helps to predict the future. And finally, apply reason and logic and values to the evidence before you to arrive at your conclusions.”

As simple as that sounds, his message didn’t fully sink in that day in October of 1973. But he planted a seed that was nurtured and reinforced by virtually every professor I had at Dartmouth from that point forward. And it grew into the most precious gift I took away from my college education – an approach that has served me well not just in my mathematical research, but in virtually every challenge I’ve faced in life.

I am confident that for the past four years, through countless classes, research projects and co-curricular activities, your professors have modeled and nurtured in you a commitment to this same approach. That’s the scholarly way.

And boy – does the world ever need minds like yours. We live in an age of unprecedented polarization, where logic and reason too often take a back seat to ideology, and where people regularly gather only those facts that support their point of view and dismiss any evidence to the contrary. We’ve even created a euphamism, “fake news,” to normalize statements that are flat out wrong. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s caution that people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts seems not to apply in today’s world!

Members of the Class of 1967, you may remember John Sloan Dickey warning you of such a world. At your Convocation, he said, “This highly motivated college generation should not discredit itself and the very ideals to which it is committed, by losing its way in the swamp of human folly, where anything goes, if it’s on your side.”

As an academic devoted to reason and evidence, am I discouraged by today’s world? Sometimes… but not at this moment. At this moment, I am inspired to look out and see, not a gathering of 1500 graduates assembled before me, but rather 1500 agents of truth headed out into the world!

And rest assured that you will not be alone. You will be joined by generations of Dartmouth graduates who honed your same scholarly values and quality of mind here in Hanover and are applying it across the globe today. Graduates like Bob King, who together with Dottie are driving evidence-based solutions to global poverty alleviation. And Ford von Reyn, who uses scientific data and reasoning in his fight against two deadly diseases. And Abbey D’Agostino, who may use the latest technology to give herself a competitive edge in running but uses her empathy and understanding of others to make a much more meaningful difference in the world. And of course Jake Tapper, our Commencement speaker, who has been a fearless, visible and determined agent of truth as a journalist, holding leaders of all political stripes accountable for their actions.

So graduates, as you pack up your worldly goods and take inventory of the items most special to you, be sure to count among them the most precious gift you received from Dartmouth: a transformed quality of mind. The courage to take on even the most daunting challenges. A commitment to shine the light of evidence and truth on all issues. A thirst to gather a diversity of perspectives, both historical and contemporary, and to consider them with an open mind. And an unwavering commitment to apply reason to the evidence at hand, and to reconsider your views when new evidence comes to light. If you depart Dartmouth with nothing else but this gift, then our time with you will have been a monumental success.

Best of luck to all of you in the years ahead. We will be watching your exploits with pride. Come back often and always keep Dartmouth close to your hearts.

Last Updated: 6/13/17