It's graduation season, and LSA is proud to confer degrees on our 2018 graduates. During the commencement exercise, it's traditional to deliver a speech to inspire, celebrate, and contextualize the graduating class's knowledge and experiences. LSA Dean Andrew D. Martin honors this year's class by encouraging them to trust their principles and ideas, and to engage the world.
Dean Martin's commencement remarks
Honored guests; distinguished Regents; President Schlissel; my faculty colleagues; and especially the Class of 2018. My name is Andrew Martin, and I'm proud to be the Dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the nation’s finest public university.
"Better safe than sorry."
You know what? I've never liked that expression. It's condescending, scolding, and prescriptive. It's also blindingly obvious. I mean, what kind of dimwit would prefer sorrow to safety?
"Better safe than sorry" ends, rather than begins, debate. It's a truism masquerading as folk wisdom – as blunt and undeniable as, "the sky is up," "water is wet," or "the University of Michigan is light years better than 'THE Ohio State University.'"
It's also overly general. A more specific warning, such as "don't stick your tongue in the light socket, honey," can open up a lively, informative discussion with any bright five-year-old about electrical conductivity and plain old common sense.
Now don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against safety. In fact, you could make a case that although a big part of a university education is meant to advance civilization, the part that's meant to preserve those advances is every bit as important.
But when we take things too far – when we make a fetish out of security – we get into trouble, and fast. There are innumerable examples, but I'll keep it down to three.
Number one: Heliocentrism. Imagine yourself in early seventeenth-century Italy, peering through your telescope and making observations that suggest the sun doesn't orbit the earth, but the other way around. It just makes sense . . . if you're Galileo. But not if you're the Pope, who insists that the Bible places the earth smack in the center of the universe, and to claim otherwise is heresy. So: better safe than sorry? Not for Galileo. He published his observations, was declared a heretic, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Now he could have played it safe and kept his mouth shut, but he didn't. And thanks to the risk he took, the scientific truths that he proclaimed still enrich our lives today.
Number two: Pacifiers, something my daughter Pretzelmuncher used to call, for some reason, a "binky." In 2013 a Swedish study showed that parents who picked up their babies' dropped pacifiers, sucked off the grit and dust, and popped them back in junior’s mouth, ended up with healthier kids than those who scrupulously cleaned – or even sterilized – the pacifiers first. Exposing the tykes to bacteria, microbes, and other foreign substances apparently helped them build up a defense against such diseases as asthma and eczema – which made them, duh, safer. Bottom line? No need to clean the binkies.
Number three: the First Amendment. Okay, this one's a little trickier than the other two, and we're not going to sort it all out in the couple of minutes I have left. But here's my general take.
Like many of my colleagues, I'm increasingly distressed by the way the academic world has been sacrificing free speech on the altar of safety. Not safety from religious persecution, or microbes, but from unpleasant – and at times horrific – ideas.
I consider the University of Michigan not just a school, but a home. And one essential function of a home is to protect its occupants. But a home is not a castle . . . or an ivory tower . . . or a fortress. And when I see otherwise good-hearted people going to extremes to "protect" our home by raising drawbridges instead of lowering them; by building walls rather than opening windows; and by avoiding anything that might make somebody the slightest bit uncomfortable – I see trouble ahead. Not just for the university, but for our country, and for our planet.
Now in some ways, I sympathize with this kind of "intellectual protectionism." The outside world seems nuttier – even scarier – than it has in a long time, right? Full of obnoxious people spouting odious nonsense at the top of their lungs, day after day? So, you know – why invite all of that in?
I'm also well aware of how this sounds coming from a middle-aged, straight, property-owning white guy. I'll be the first to admit that over the centuries, my demographic hasn't exactly earned a monopoly on wise proclamations.
But regardless of who says it, this principle still stands: If we don't trust our ideas enough to sail them out of the harbor once in a while, they'll remain unformed, untested, and unready for the battles on open waters that are sure to come. And that leaves our society both less safe and, eventually, more sorry.
So let's have a little faith in ourselves. This is the University of Michigan. We didn't earn our reputation as a world-class institution through complacency and retreat. In fact, I’m proudest of our community at the times when – rather than wrapping ourselves in a security blanket behind locked doors and drawn shades – we’ve welcomed the chance to raise our collective voice, loudly and proudly, against those who lack honesty, integrity, and decency. This kind of open engagement and advocacy is our sacred obligation.
I welcome that obligation, and I celebrate it. Because what I hope you – the Class of 2018 – have learned from our faculty, from our community, and – most importantly – from one other, is that in the long run, good ideas triumph over bad, integrity beats dishonesty, and those who build community will outlive those who try to destroy it.
Thank you all, congratulations to the Class of 2018, and, forever, Go Blue.