Atop the Class of 1881 gate on the north side of Harvard Yard is inscribed a call to Harvard’s motto: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Yet across the country and the political spectrum, truth — and the search for it — is under attack.
President Donald J. Trump has repeated false statements — such as the preposterous assertion that a trade deficit represents lost money — so many times that the Washington Post’s fact checker devised a new category for his most repeated ones. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising Democratic star, has made numerous egregious statements about economics. She has, for example, asserted that the unemployment rate is manipulated by individuals working more than one job and that businesses have minimum prices for inputs other than labor. (They don’t).
The notion that political leaders might make outlandish, false assertions and remain unscathed is a new phenomenon. About 25 years ago, then-Vice President Dan Quayle misspelled “potato” and subsequently was permanently labeled inept. Such history looks almost quaint today. Indeed, truth and accuracy have become partisan terms.
It is not simply that political leaders have abandoned concerns about veracity. They have done so on the basis of partisan agreement. From climate change science to Trump’s attacks on health care, in particular around pre-existing conditions coverage, Republicans have willingly lied and accepted falsehoods for the purpose of defending party allies. On social media and elsewhere, truth has become a partisan term.
This post-truth age has grave consequences: Trump’s lies about trade deficits have likely cost the nation hundreds of thousands of jobs. The anti-vaccination movement, which recently received support from a newly-elected Republican from Tennessee in Congress, has maliciously misled parents into refraining from vaccinating their children, contributing to disease outbreaks across the country. Likewise, it is easy to imagine how an economic policy rooted in Ocasio-Cortez’s misunderstandings could bring harm.
Correspondingly, a disdain for universities and their work has grown across the country. This has come from the left as well as the right. Over the past decade, Americans have expressed declining trust in academia and in the ability of science to better their lives. The new tax plan passed by Congressional Republicans taxes university endowments, and its passage was accompanied by attacks on higher education. Gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez proposed during his failed campaign for Massachusetts governor a devastating tax on university endowments.
In this time, Harvard’s role could not be clearer. As the oldest and most prominent institution of higher education in the United States, it has a unique responsibility to defend truth and the pursuit of it. As the flurry of recent lawsuits attests, what happens inside the gates of the Yard has reverberations across the country and the world.
Seizing this leadership demands a recognition of what has caused public leaders to abandon the truth. Increasingly, Americans withdraw into their own silos: They see curated social media feeds and watch television stations attuned to their own political interests. When academics disagree, it must be that the academics are wrong and that their system is flawed.
This cannot be pinned on one side alone. Neither Trump nor Ocasio-Cortez apologized for their statements, even after their veracities were questioned. Both sides have sought to use their power to quash disagreement: The president has openly attacked critical news organizations, and liberals have forced the firing of professors for their views.
In these times, the best defense for the truth is an embrace of what leads to it. “Truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established — established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth,” University President Drew G. Faust explained in her 2017 commencement speech.
This is where our political leaders fail. They have siloed discourse, forced the partisanization of truth, and refused to accept any veracity from the opposing side. They restate falsehoods and defend those uttered by members of their team. We see this at Harvard as well. When a student organization last year hosted an event with a controversial speaker, many who disagreed called not for students to speak out but for Harvard to ban the speaker. And this is a story that has repeated itself time and time on campuses again across the country.
But we cheapen our ideas when we call for their veracity to be upheld with the force of bans and censorship. When we refuse to subject them to disagreement, we fail at pursuing truth.
This was captured by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who wrote in an influential dissenting opinion in Abrams v. U.S. that “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
The best defense we have against the public acceptance of falsehoods is the idea of rigorous debate and disagreement. This is what Harvard must stand up for. It — its administration, faculty, and students — must reaffirm that the essence of academia is the search for truth in disagreement.
I have seen firsthand the power of this idea. As Op-Eds Editor and a member of The Crimson’s Editorial Board, I have seen controversy induced by the arguments we have put out. Many, too, have helped engineer change. Yet too often, readers respond to articles with which they disagree by demanding to know why we would publish such an argument. As if we — or they — already have the truth.
During a reception in the early 20th century by the Class of 1881 to commemorate the dedication of its gate, the chairman of the class committee said, “We desire only that their interpretation be unlimited, and that they shall express in the majesty of their simplicity at least this, the invitation which our beloved college offers to the youth of this wide land, to come within its gates, in order that in whole-hearted service to the truth, they may enter into life, and so be free.”
Caleb J. Esrig ’20, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House.