Facts Are Precious

Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

Have you ever noticed that being first with an answer may be too little, too soon? Philosophers, economists, and historians have noted for a long time, each in their own way, a peculiar velocity ratio, never one-to-one, between an idea and the ultimate information it carries. Every innovation in technology, for instance, will race ahead of its unmeasured consequences, sometimes to better ends, but often not. Things invented will be used before they are fully understood. This has been true in the development of military weapons, personal computers, and household appliances. 

What has been true about technology in our lives suggests an important corollary about language and the apparatus of communication. Words, attitudes, and opinions are often used before they are completely understood. This is not a particularly new carelessness in the human history of speech. And yet, the pace and cycle of loaded words exploding into disinformation is different this time. These rapid-fire forms of expression may be crudely calculated, haphazard, or even innocent utterances, but as untested remarks, they risk being unsafe to both the speaker and the listener. Even traditional “bad” names get worse with adverbs, to the extent that calling someone a name, even in a jest, instantly makes them so. A fool, as Shakespeare insisted, is different from a damn fool.

Some days, the public conversation feels like an unfamiliar linguistic frontier, both distorted and dystopian. The landscape of debate that once imposed boundaries of propriety about what to say and how best to say it, is now opened up as a combat zone. Do we really wish for a verbal Battle of the Somme, where a hundred years ago powerful weapons never aligned with a complete understanding of the strategic and moral consequences?

When I was a boy in the pews of our family church, Seth R. Brooks, Class of1922, had been serving that pulpit since 1939. I heard him say one Sunday, “Facts are precious, because they are so rare.” I have thought about that statement my whole life, trying to understand, as completely as possible, how the galaxy may seemingly stay the same, while our astronomy changes. After many years of reading and doing scholarly work, just as I begin to grasp more fully the rarity of facts, I find myself curiously facing the possibility of living in a rhetorical era framed too often—almost gleefully—by the absence of facts.

What should a university do or say when its students increasingly feel the unnerving effects of an empirical riptide, pulling evidence under the surf? It used to be students pondered, “what is truth?” but now, they must start with what is true? Differences among them are often severely exaggerated when they look outside their campus lives, distorting the reality of people they know without a “slant” as ordinary classmates, some as friends, some as the person smiling back at the next table. How can they determine what can be believed as reliable, justifiable, and provable? 

St. Lawrence students represent a mixture of humanity from urban centers, suburban communities, and rural America. In the mix are students of different races and ethnic backgrounds, first-generation college students and fifth-generation students, students born under different flags or religious traditions, students from conservative, progressive, and independent families, students of LBGTQ identity, and numerous students “in the middle,” appropriately confused about attaining their own self-confidence. We who teach them and work on their behalf are listening very hard right now, as they seek a common vocabulary to navigate a world of potentially counterfeit information that comes from all sides, particularly by social media.

What is our “rhetorical strategy” for ensuring the preciousness of facts? From the first instant of their arrival, we constantly talk to our students about the empowerment of a liberal arts education. Surprisingly, that phrase is not a self-evident truth any more, at least not in the scrum of wild assertions about higher learning and the subsequently misguided conclusions pronounced from high-volume microphones. Never mind that liberal arts graduates have the highest placement rates of any college graduates in America, are disproportionately represented by major leadership positions in business and in all kinds of “public good” organizations, or are producing more science Ph.D.s than the undergraduate programs of comprehensive research universities. In baseball terms, the liberal arts colleges hit for high average and consistent power.

And yet, we must make sure our students understand fully the source of this unequivocal empowerment. Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe examines the experience of military veterans, particularly in light of the rising rates of PTSD. He observes in his study that “human beings don’t mind hardship; in fact, they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.” This insight also transcends to the source of liberal arts empowerment: St. Lawrence must insist for itself that it is a necessity, not a luxury in the world. Our alumni also need to make that a fundamental fact of their life-stories whenever they tell them.

The complementary forces of necessity and empowerment, as a means of avoiding the fallacy of too little, too soon, are otherwise pleasant academic abstractions without an accompanying sense of genuine well-being within each person. A journalist whose beat is international events discusses the building of community anywhere in the world as the assurance that people feel “protected, respected, and connected.” 

Feeling protected is a precondition for thinking freely, and initiating a path of discovery without fear of being abandoned. In a campus environment, people have to believe that someone will always stand up for them, particularly when a single member of the community is confronted by boorish, perhaps bigoted, assumptions and assaults. Further, with equal importance, someone must also defend vigorously the individual who has felt silenced in dissent from the opinion of a campus majority.

Feeling respected is to believe others will affirm you as competent. In Roman civil law, there is a concept called responsa prudentum, which means “the answers of the learned,” implying that their reasoning is trustworthy. Respect won has especially learned to admire dependable people. Every person should aspire to be that credible, wise soul.

Feeling connected is both essential and visible, but this intense experience also puts it at risk, in the same way the obvious sometimes gets overlooked. Most Laurentians, I believe, can say upon reflection that they once knew someone on campus who would have risked life, safety, or painful sacrifice for them personally in an hour of deepest human need; those same qualities of friendship continue years later. For us at and of St. Lawrence, the achievement of that particular feeling—of security, acceptance, and belonging—is as precious as a fact of life.

Based on remarks given at the Board of Trustees meeting, February 25, 2017

President William L. Fox '75