The principal iconographic representation of Harvard University sits elevated in the center of the Old Yard. It is a faded bronze cast with a shiny golden foot, known to visitors as the “John Harvard statue” and to students and alumni as “the statue of the three lies.” The statue’s inscription proclaims “John Harvard – Founder – 1638,” a tripartite tall tale. As every Harvard tour guide will certainly tell you, John Harvard was not the founder of Harvard University, merely the institution’s first major benefactor; Harvard was founded in 1636, not 1638; and — dramatic pause — the statue itself does not depict John Harvard.
That Harvard University’s motto is “Veritas” and the statue of its eponymous namesake is false seems ironic. As the Gazette detailed, to the University’s Puritan founders, “Veritas meant more than truth … It meant ‘fulfillment.’” The Puritans longed to attain a biblical truth, brought by a “second coming.” A modern-day understanding of Harvard’s motto reinterprets this Puritan philosophy as the pursuit of knowledge in the hopes of uncovering truth through academia.
This commitment to truth seems more important now than ever, given the increasing politicization of truth and fact. President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani proclaimed to NBC’s Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth” and told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that facts lie “in the eye of the beholder.” The Trump Administration has repeatedly presented falsehoods as fact — such as when Sean Spicer said that the crowd at the president’s inauguration was “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period” (it wasn’t), and Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in an August 14th press briefing that President Trump had already tripled President Obama’s African American employment numbers (he hasn’t). The Washington Post reported on August 1 that the president himself had made 4,229 false or misleading claims since assuming office, including claiming 88 times that he had passed the largest tax cut in U.S. history (he didn’t).
As a result, a significant contingent of the American public no longer accepts facts and truths for what they are. Conspiracy theorists have experienced their own Internet boom, using platforms like Reddit and Twitter to propel misinformation. Popular Internet conspiracies involve everything from the idea that Hillary Clinton ran a human trafficking ring to “crisis actors” at the Parkland school shooting. While these theories may seem ridiculous from our perspective, they resonate with many Americans. Some — like the existence of a “deep state” — are substantiated by the president himself.
This rhetoric establishes a false dichotomy whereby one set of facts are pitted against baseless, nonsensical “alternative facts.” And in doing so, it has the potential to undermine the findings of academic research, just as it already has undermined the facts found by the news media. Working in journalism this summer, I witnessed the insidious effect these ideas have on the public’s perception of facts. I saw CNN reporters get accosted for doing their jobs by protestors who proclaimed the network produces “fake news.” And soon, I fear, these protestors could turn their attention to academia, which many view as possessing the same liberal bias as the media.
Some already have. The rise of political conspiracies has coincided with the resurgence of the anti-vaccination movement, which claims — contrary to the findings of numerous studies, according to the CDC — that autism spectrum disorder is caused by vaccinating children. The president has stated on Twitter he believes there is a link between autism and vaccines more than 20 times. Conservative school boards have long been ignoring the facts that demonstrate the futility of abstinence-only sex education. In March 2017, Texas joined seven other US states that have proposed legislation that would allow teachers to “present Creationism and scientific theory.” The legislation in Texas later died in committee; however, the Trump Administration’s anti-truth rhetoric could breath new life into it. Climate change, already denied by many on the right, despite being widely accepted as occurring by the scientific community, has been struck from Idaho schools’ science curriculums.
The Administration’s attacks on truth have built upon this history and set the foundation for an educational system where ideas widely accepted by the scientific community are ignored in the classroom in favor of other theories supported by little or no evidence. It is our responsibility, as Harvard students, professors, and administrators, to defend the truth, without equivocating between facts and fiction. I hope that Harvard’s administrators and especially the University’s new leader, University President Lawrence S. Bacow, are willing to speak out in favor of education and truth, as it is more important now than ever.
Anna M. Kuritzkes ’20, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House.