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Stanford Report, June 18, 2003

Gerhard Casper: 'The search to know has always been characterized by the need to doubt'

The following is the text of a speech delivered by President Emeritus Gerhard Casper, the Peter and Helen Bing Professor in Undergraduate Education and professor of law, at the Senior Class Day luncheon on Saturday, June 14, 2003.

Parents, relatives and friends of the Class of 2003, members of the Class of 2003, I shall address you presently.

However, before I do so, I should like to convey some good ­ indeed, great ­ news to President Hennessy. John, the great news is: After one steps down as Stanford president, one will be remembered for (at least) another three years. In a few years, I shall report to you whether any recollections of a former president last longer than three years. However, for the time being it is important to note: There will be that last class that was admitted during your presidency and there will be those students whom you welcomed (along with their families) at that most wonderful event in the Stanford calendar: Opening Convocation in the Main Quad. Also, that last class will have bonded with you at that quite-out-of-the-ordinary event in the Stanford calendar: Gaieties.

Class of 2003, how can I ever forget your enthusiasm that night at Gaieties in November '99, when you and I prepared to defeat Cal once again? Since you do have a special place in my heart, as I thought you would when I welcomed you, I was certainly favorably inclined when I heard from your class presidents. They, however, had figured out a special way to get to me.

The form of address for a sitting or former university president can be quite varied. I have heard it all: "President Casper," "Dr. Casper," "Mr. Casper," and ­ since this is Stanford ­ "Gerhard." However, your class presidents clinched the case for my accepting your invitation to speak at today's occasion by writing, I quote:

Dear Professor Casper:

You welcomed our class as our President, and now, we ask you to address our classmates and families as a Professor.

How could I possibly have said "No, thank you!" in response to that? Though I would also have come, had James, Rajaie, Judi and Ruby simply addressed me as "Dear Gerhard."

Which reminds me of an anecdote about David Starr Jordan, the first of John Hennessy's and my predecessors in the line of Stanford presidents. In those more formal days, he was known around campus as "Dr. Jordan." The story is about the two freshmen who, one morning, saw Jordan approaching on the Quad. One said: "There's Dr. Jordan. He says to come up and say hello. I'll bet you a dollar you won't call him by his first name." The other freshman answered: "I'll take that bet." As Jordan got close, the student greeted him, "Good morning, David." Jordan replied: "Why be so formal? Just call me Dave."

Winds of freedom

When I welcomed you four years ago, I concluded my remarks by saying:

Stanford's motto, "The wind of freedom blows" (Die Luft der Freiheit weht), was chosen by our first president after he had encountered the phrase in a biography of Ulrich von Hutten, a humanist who had lived at the turn of the 15th to the 16th century and who, in the course of the 19th century, had captured the public imagination as an early fighter for secular freedom. In his own student days, at the height of the Renaissance, Hutten made an enthusiastic statement about the search to know. He wrote in a letter to a fellow humanist: "It is a pleasure to live . ... Studies blossom and the minds move."

My last sentence repeated a theme that I had voiced ever since 1992. I said: "I wish that you may fully experience the pleasures that come from studies blossoming and minds moving."

I am as confident as I can be that you have indeed experienced these pleasures, from the freshmen seminars of Stanford Introductory Studies to work in your respective majors, from the classrooms to the dormitories and to chance encounters in the Quad.

At another university, its president was once asked how many students there were at the college. He answered: "10 percent." By contrast, the Stanford Class of 2003 had ­ well, let us be truthful ­ perhaps not 100 percent, but at least 99 percent students. The other university shall remain unidentified. I shall, however, give you two clues. It is located in New Jersey, and the president who made the quip was called Woodrow Wilson.

I return to Stanford's motto, "The wind of freedom blows," to which I first introduced you, back on September 17, 1999. Neither you nor I foresaw then that the question what it means to be committed to the wind of freedom would, within two years, become one of the major questions of the third millennium's first years. After a decade of low-key global violence that followed the first Gulf War, your class has witnessed the United States in full-blown wars ­ and you have experienced the ambiguities and moral dilemmas that are associated with war.

You, and all of us gathered here today, are now faced with urgent and difficult questions about the balance between freedom and security, the distinction between citizen and alien, about the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world, about the tradeoffs between the foreign and the domestic priorities of our own country. Citizens and government must constantly reevaluate the balance between laxity and zeal, because the danger of destroying a desirable society exists at both ends of the spectrum.


Public service

As we are searching for answers to very difficult questions, let us think about the attitude, the mindset with which to approach these questions.

Back in 1999, I said that you were about to begin one of the most noble and honorable forms of public service that I know. "That is," I said, "you will promote the public welfare through the increase of knowledge: your own knowledge, your fellow students' knowledge, your faculty's knowledge and society's knowledge."

Today, I should like to stress a public service that I hope you will render having equipped yourselves to do so through your work at Stanford. Permit me to make four simple points.

First. Do not let the future make you narrow in intellect, spirit, pursuits, values. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist, in 1932 wrote to his younger brother who seemed to be settling on too particular an intellectual course: "[L]et me urge you with every earnestness to keep an open mind: to cultivate a disinterested and catholic interest in every intellectual discipline, and in the non-academic excellences of the world, so that you may not lose that freshness of mind from which alone the life of the mind derives, and that your choice, whatever it be, of work to do, may be a real choice, and one reasonably free."

And ­ my second point ­ remember throughout life what an unidentified French theologian once said: The most corrupting lies are problems poorly stated. In research, as you experienced throughout your studies, the poorly stated problem stands in the way of achieving results. In public affairs, the poorly stated problem may become a "corrupting lie," that is, a moral issue, not merely an obstacle to finding solutions.

My third point: The search to know has always been characterized by the need to doubt, the need to be critical, including the need to be self-critical. The task is to look not just for the evidence to support the propositions you like but for the counterevidence as well.

My fourth point is that I implore you to apply the reasoning habits you have developed as Stanford students to the public affairs of our country (or your home country, if you are not from here) and the public affairs of the world. In short, continue the particular public service that you have been engaged in as students when you act as citizens in the public realm. That request is not as obviously met as you may think. Throughout my life, I have been amazed, for instance, by scholars who, in some matter of public concern, jumped to conclusions with a speed and lack of evidence they would never have accepted in their respective disciplines.


Truth, not ideology

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt who, in 1933 ­ then a young woman ­ had to flee Nazi Germany, in 1948, dedicated a book of essays to the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her former teacher at the university. She wrote:

What helped me ... to find my way through reality without surrendering to it in the manner in which, in former times, one used to strike a bargain with the devil, is what I learned from you: only truth, not ideology, matters; one must live and think in a free and open space rather than in a shell however beautifully furnished. ... What I have never forgotten is the way you listened (so difficult to describe), the tolerance that was always ready to be critical ­ equally far removed from skepticism and fanaticism ­ and that, after all, only expressed the insight that all human beings partake of reason and no human being is infallible.

I myself, many years later, had an opportunity to meet Karl Jaspers and I did experience the way he listened, "the tolerance that was always ready to be critical," a reflective reticence that was the very opposite of living and thinking in a shell. Much of public life, on the left, on the right, even in the center, and including government, seems to be conducted in shells. I hope you will stay away from shells, however elaborately furnished.

You will now go down "the four wide ways in the great world each to do [your] part in a brave and responsible fashion." Wherever you will be, dream of Stanford. David Starr Jordan wrote a poem that he entitled with the ancient phrase "A Castle in Spain." His "castle in Spain," however, was real, not just imagined: It was Stanford.

That "castle" is yours, as it is Leland and Jane Stanford's, David Starr Jordan's, the faculty's, the students', the alumni's, President Hennessy's, even mine. And, most mysteriously, as you now metamorphose into alumni, the castle must be and will be there for future generations of students and faculty.

Class of 2003, as "Professor" Casper says farewell to you, you will retain a special place in Gerhard's heart. I wish you the very best!


SLIDESHOW: Commencement 2003

Peruvian leader implores graduates to help fight world poverty

Graduates engage in traditional 'wacky walk'