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John Harvard's Journal | Commencement 2002

"Veritas"

President Lawrence H. Summers' address

July-August 2002

President Lawrence H. Summers took stock of the ever wetter, colder weather as the Commencement afternoon exercises proceeded and decided to cut short delivery of his prepared remarks. He reported on his "freshman year" as president, likening it to "that of many other first-year students. Settling into a new place to live, getting an e-mail account up and running, guzzling Diet Coke, not getting too much sleep." He recalled memorable events, significant appointments, and, especially, people he had met, on the faculties and in the student bodies, whose unheralded but exciting intellectual work offers examples of "the kind of brilliance, the kind of dedication to learning and knowledge, that are so very typical of this community."

Those examples were to have introduced the second half of his address, on the search for truth within a university enterprise like Harvard. But given the prevailing "humiditas" and "frigiditas," he referred the small audience present in Tercentenary Theatre, and those watching the proceedings at broadcast sites, to the Internet for the rest of his text. That section of Summers's first Commencement address is excerpted here. The full text is available on Harvard's commencement website.

 

...I've learned something about the history of veritas this year. Originally it was paired on the University's coat of arms with the University's real motto, "In Christi Gloriam." Veritas meant divine truth, truth reached ultimately not through reason but through faith.

President Quincy in 1843 suggested to the Harvard Corporation that it adopt the word on the open books as the true symbol of the function of the University: "The duty of considering science and learning as an independent interest of the community, ... giving to that interest...a vitality of its own, having no precarious dependence for existence on subserviency to particular views in politics or religion." And we continually renew our commitment to veritas.

Today, when we say that the University is a place of veritas, we mean that we are open to all ideas, no matter what their source. We mean that we are committed to a diversity of perspectives and a willingness to draw individuals from any background, in order to advance our excellence. Our openness allows, indeed requires, data and insights from every direction to inform and influence our search for truth.

Let's never forget that openness is a means, while truth is our end. While we are open to all ideas, judging ideas is central to what we do. Openness does not mean supposing that all ideas are created equal.

We hire certain scholars over others based on the quality of their work.

We award higher grades to some student papers and not others.

We commit resources to different areas of inquiry, based on careful evaluations of intellectual importance.

We study astronomy but not astrology.

We assign Shakespeare, not Sidney Sheldon.

Our press published Erich Segal's recent book on The Death of Comedy, but it did not and it would not publish Love Story.

We make the judgments we make with reasonable confidence not because any of us are endowed with a perfect sense of the true and the right. But rather because the institution of the University organizes us to believe in and make full use of an arduous process of threshing, sifting, and refining different ideas....

Our process takes [it] for granted that imperfection, fallibility, and incompleteness adhere to veritas—we take as a given that mistakes tutor genius.

As an economist, I am drawn to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., class of 1861's observation that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."...

The marketplace of ideas does not place equal value on all perspectives. No idea or source of ideas can ever be exempt as a matter of right from scrutiny, correction, or, when appropriate, rejection. Some will, over time, come to be accepted as better than others. This constant process of competition—the introduction of new ideas, and refinement of old ones—is what drives our University in its search for veritas. We hold that judicious critique in the context of collective inquiry is an act of supreme respect.

Here, in this University, all attempts at intellectual creativity, no matter how young, how tentative, or even how outlandish, merit our tender respect and our rigorous attention. Ultimately, the benefit of our rigor is that everyone gathered here, at the University, has the opportunity to meet his own, her own standard. Thus we grow as intellectuals and flourish as a civil community....

[O]ur prospects for making this world a better, freer, more comfortable place for all who live on this planet depend on nothing as much as clear and imaginative thinking—and people who are capable of thinking clearly and imaginatively. People committed to veritas....