President Phil Hanlon ’77 2017 Valedictory to the Graduating Students
“As you pack up your worldly goods and take inventory of the items that are most special to you, be sure to count among them the most precious gift you received from Dartmouth: A transformed quality of mind,” Hanlon told the Class of 2017.
OK, Graduates! You’ve done it! Four years of hard work and determination ... with a little partying along the way and a lot of support from family, friends, faculty, and staff along the way. They brought you to this day. Congratulations to each of you as you depart Hanover to take up new challenges!
Departure, of course, means that you’re packing—or you should be thinking about packing if you haven’t started yet. Taking inventory of the most treasured belongings to make sure that you take them with you. Forty years ago, I was the one taking that inventory, but it was not until years later that I understood that in fact the most prized possession I would take with me from Dartmouth was right here in my head.
So let me explain. The story actually starts a few years earlier, within a month of my arrival at Dartmouth. It’s a moment I’ll remember forever—one you may remember—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 that the “minus” was a bit gratuitous—really, the “D” already conveyed the essential message.
But I was haunted by the 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. He said, “The liberal arts tradition demands that you learn to think critically. That means you start with a question and a completely open mind about what the answer should be. You need to gather all available evidence from a diverse set of sources and perspectives, including historical, a recognition that history informs the present and predicts the future. And finally, with all that evidence before you, you apply logic and reason and values to reach a conclusion.”
It sounds simple. As simple as that sounds, I know that his message didn’t fully sink in that day for me 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 that I took away from my college education—an approach that has served me well not just in my mathematical research, but in every challenge I’ve faced in life.
I am confident that for the past four years, through countless classes, research projects, and cocurricular activities, your professors and all of Dartmouth have modeled and nurtured in you a commitment to that same approach. It is the scholarly way, in the truest liberal arts tradition.
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 evidence to the contrary.
We’ve even created a euphemism, “fake news,” to normalize things that are just 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, and I quote, “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? Honestly, sometimes I am … but not at this moment. At this moment, I am inspired to look out and see not a gathering of 1,500 graduates assembled before me, but rather 1,500 agents of truth headed out into the world!
And rest assured 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 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 that are 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 questions. 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 an unwavering commitment to apply reason to the evidence at hand, and to reconsider your views when new evidence arises. 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. Thank you.