Pursuing Truth, the art of satire, and the best donuts in Durham
This story is adapted from a speech given at Duke’s Class of 2017 Class Day.
Duke’s commencement is scary. The graduation banners adorning Campus Drive and the droves of proud families arriving at RDU mark the culmination of the inevitable. The last few years flew by as we strived for the sort of greatness we’ll celebrate during commencement weekend. As Duke graduates, we’ve been blessed with a sense of “outrageous ambition.” We have a tenacity in us matched with an unwavering pride in our shade of blue. We have the audacity to drive forward and push the boundary, even when it’s daunting.
In fact, that drive for something greater is what brought me here as a transfer student.
But after nearly three years, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that I wasn’t pushing that boundary forward. There were times where I felt static, stuck in the status quo or in some endless feedback loop of busy days. “No time to trail blaze,” I thought “I’ve got a midterm next week.”
But in December, I decided to change that. Two hours before the deadline, I applied to be the Monday Monday columnist for the Duke Chronicle. This nearly 40-year-old tradition is passed down each semester to a new satire writer. Each columnist is in total creative control of their character, and is tasked with interpreting and engaging in issues with some sort of satirical spin. When challenged with developing my Monday Monday persona, I did what the daughter of any fact-checking journalist would do.
I wrote fake news.
Much to the chagrin of my father and the years of public schooling that had taught me to champion honesty and a proper MLA citation, I penned headlines like “Coach K to auction off sweaty knee brace of Harry Giles because he can’t get medical coverage,” or “57% of the class of 2021 is reportedly really weird.” I made up facts, I anonymously sourced, and I fabricated quotes from all sorts of people including President Brodhead all the way down to first year men on the C1. Anonymously criticizing every institution at Duke didn’t exactly push the boundary. But under the tagline of “not not true,” I made up facts and truths in an attempt to uncover the real ones.
I tell you this story not only out of irony, but also out of urgency. The pursuit of truth is important now more than ever before. And as many of us begin the next chapter of our lives, the truth is difficult to grapple with. Today, we lose the comfort of the professor’s carefully curated comments on an essay or test keys to check our answers against. There are questions out there. Big ones — like, bigger than 65%-of-your-final-grade big — that will guide us in the right direction, but also perpetually confound us. But luckily, throughout our Duke careers, we’ve been given the tools vital to the pursuit of “Truth with a capital T” — that abstract ideal that Plato said can only be found through philosophical contemplation.
You don’t have to be some elitist philosophy major or a graduate of any “ivy-plus” to understand what Plato was trying to say. That idea of “truth” he was talking about? It comes in many forms. We gather as many truths during long nights in the library as we discover between sleeping bags at dawn in K-Ville. As Duke students, we challenge each other on everything — from the ethics of government mandated vegetarianism, to that last answer on the multi problem set to which place in Durham has the best donuts (and for the record, it’s Monuts. It’s absolutely Monuts.) And as a result, we emerge with greater truths than ever before.
Truth has always been a part of Duke’s ethos. In 1903, Trinity College President John Kilgo defended our uninhibited academic freedom and outlined what he believed should be the mission of the university. Within these, he says the aims of Duke are to “advance learning in all lines of truth; to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth; and to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance.”
Our professors and mentors have taught us just what President Kilgo was getting at, in that nothing is given. Not truths, nor As in math classes or standing room at the Carolina-Duke game. We’re told that everything must be earned, or at least pragmatically considered. We’re taught to question everything, and that we should scrutinize and examine any truths until we are deeply sure they are so.
I implore each and every one of you to use those skills we’ve been given to constantly be in pursuit of your own truth, whether that be in medicine, or philosophy, or journalism, or politics, or even management consulting. Whenever you’re handed something as a given, challenge it. If you think something is false, question it, and be relentless in doing so. Engage in discourse, even if you disagree. Read news or listen to podcasts every day. Engage with people who look different. Talk to those who earn less money than you or earn way more. Talk to your Uber drivers, and ask your colleagues what they think. Learn history, and then learn not to repeat it.
We have never been a group of people who enjoys the status quo. Like I said, we push boundaries.
So let that mindset — that “I’m right, and I’m going to prove you wrong” mindset — extend long past the confines of the gothic wonderland. Do your research, check your facts, but also don’t be afraid to create your own. As Adam Silver demonstrates, you don’t have be a 6'11" power forward to excel in the NBA. You simply must be a Duke graduate.
The only way you can discover that higher truth or the right set of facts is to do exactly what you’ve already been doing for the past four years: pushing the boundary. So don’t accept the status quo or make it up. My soiree into satirical news may be over, but it’s helped me realize:
The truth is hard to find.
It’s hard to know what’s right and what’s wrong, especially in those late nights when you’re really desperate to know the answer. We may never know the ultimate Truth. But we should constantly be pushing the boundary towards it.