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Op Eds

Veritas and Us

By P. Mackenzie Bok

Whimsical adaptations of Harvard’s motto, “Veritas,” have been a staple of my four years here. The Dems replaced it with Stephen Colbert’s trademark “TRU-THI-NESS” on a freshman-year t-shirt. In Annenberg and Pfoho dining halls, I munched on “veritaffles.” And the April freshman revisit weekend was recently renamed “Visitas.” As undergraduates, we primarily encounter the school motto in this way, as an opportunity to play on words. Yet as graduation hurdles towards me, I’ve been thinking a great deal recently about how Veritas applies meaningfully to us students. What does Harvard, the great university with the one-word motto, have to say to us, on this day when so many things are being said?

When it comes to our work as scholars, the answer is easy. At the end of the nineteenth century, Harvard and other American universities refashioned themselves along the German research university model, strictly delineating disciplines and inventing rigorous training to produce professional academics, experts in their respective methodologies. By equipping scholars in this manner, the University believed it could best prepare them to push the boundaries of knowledge. Researchers would pursue the narrow lanes of inquiry open to their disciplines and thereby access Truth. Although the gospel of interdisciplinary study has spread since then, this model is still the basis for Harvard and the rest of the world of academia, where success is measured—for professor and undergraduate thesis-writer alike—by the yardstick of contributions to knowledge, however narrowly confined to a small sub-field.

As a thesis-writer this year, I’ve experienced the best of what this system has to offer. You never really know the extent to which Harvard is designed for original research until you try it. Aided by friendly archivists and remarkable archives, the advice and expertise of numerous professors, ample funding for research travel, and an inexhaustible set of library resources, I was able to pursue a topic that fascinated me and make my own small contribution to the world of knowledge. This work, in academic terms, is the pursuit of Veritas.

Yet I asked what Harvard has to say to us. And for all the pomp and circumstance this week surrounding scholastic achievement, we Harvard College students are mostly not headed for the halls of academia. Nor do we spend all our time here engaged in academic research. So what could the message of Veritas mean, if we hope that Harvard has something to say about our lives and futures beyond academic work, and the Christian connotation of the original phrase “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” does not speak to everyone?

Well, I think there’s another way of conceiving of truth that’s nearly the opposite of pursuing a single strand of academic inquiry. It’s the activity of trying to hold onto many strands all at once and make sense of the overall tapestry. It’s about attempting to reconcile apparently contradictory imperatives as part of a whole, rather than simply foregrounding one and choosing to ignore others. More than anything else, this process of truth-seeking—a process that requires a broad view rather than tunnel vision—is the tricky task of being human.

For example, as I go off into the world, I know that I value the life of the mind. It gives me joy, it satisfies some yearning within me, it provides an elevated place to meet the minds of others. Yet I also know that I already owe the world debts greater than I can ever repay, and that I can’t be content with simply plowing everything that Harvard and the rest of life has given me back into my own self-development. The unequal and arbitrary distribution of gifts and opportunities is too shameful for me to think of myself as anything but a temporary steward of it all. To respond to the freshman-year anxiety as to whether each of us “deserved” to get into Harvard: I won’t know until I do something with it to serve others.

Even within the realm of service, however, there’s a tension between two different truths: Institutional mechanisms, like those of politics, can allow for systematic change with broad effects, yet working directly with people can provide more daily satisfaction, empower others, and ground one’s efforts in reality. So what kind of life should we lead? As I consider my own future, I wonder if I should spend my time shuttling between intellectual inquiry, political activity, and direct service, or try to settle on an intermediate location somewhere on the plane defined by those three points. Perhaps four points, actually, since there is also of course the daily work of being kind to the people in our lives, of forming human relationships and community.

Harvard could do a better job of preparing us to wrestle with the challenges of this sort of truth-seeking. Rather than focus so much on keeping score of accomplishments in ultra-specific realms, it could try to build an undergraduate environment that actively supports and acknowledges the struggle of crafting a balanced, fulfilling life. It could also lead by example, by making more effort to wrestle with its own existential tensions as an institution. How are we to justify such a concentration of wealth and power in one institution, for example, if that wealth and power is merely self-perpetuating? Is it enough for incidental benefits to accrue to the world, as by-products of Harvard’s successes, or do we need an intentional institutional mission of service? Does the University have anything to say to its graduates, beyond advocacy for the pursuit of truth in academics? These are the questions that will echo in my mind at this week’s Commencement. For it turns out that “Veritas” is far richer food for thought than veritaffles.

P. Mackenzie Bok ’11, is a history concentrator in Pforzheimer House and the former student president of the Institute of Politics. She is a Marshall Scholar.

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Op EdsCommencement 2011