President Johnson addressed the class of 2024

Thank you, Rep. Au, for a truly inspiring message.

Congratulations, again, to our graduates. We know that each of you will make important contributions in your chosen fields. All of us need your passion, your novel ideas, and your strong belief in creating a better world.

But as you take your superb education and begin applying it to the world’s challenges, I hope you will not only question authority—as you’ve done here, year in and year out—I hope you will learn to question your own authority on the road to the truth.

I think of an example offered recently by Pat Berman, our Theodora L. and Stanley H. Feldberg Professor of Art. She showed her History of Photography class a photo of Pope Francis wearing a big, stylish white puffer coat, with a large, sparkly crucifix.

She asked the class what the photo meant, and received many extremely thoughtful answers about what His Holiness was trying to signal.

Not a single student, however, suggested that the photo might not be genuine.

It was a fake, generated by the AI art tool Midjourney. However, even when there are no deepfakes involved, our intuitive responses to a situation can often be faulty.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, whose research focused on the psychology of economics, helped us understand that we have two brain systems: System 1, which thinks fast and where “the conclusion comes first, and the arguments follow”; and System 2, which thinks slowly and arrives at its conclusions carefully and with effort. System 1, the evidence suggests, is “gullible and biased to believe,” while System 2 is in charge of “doubting and unbelieving.”

Doubt is a powerful force, even in a world that rewards confident certainty. I would urge you to use System 2 and to lead with questions whenever you can. The world is complex, and it is important for people of goodwill to acknowledge that.

What I am arguing for is intellectual humility—or the willingness to admit that one’s own knowledge may be imperfect or incomplete. This quality does not receive a lot of praise in the momentum-driven, boastful culture around us—where social media limits of 280 characters or 60 seconds reward snappy brevity and sloganeering.

Sometimes, saying, “I don’t know,” or “I need to study this more deeply before I express an opinion,” is seen as a sign of weakness. But in almost every field, intellectual humility characterizes the true inventors, pioneers, and artists—as well as the most esteemed scholars and beloved leaders.

Intellectual humility has both an individual and a social element. For all of us—and I speak from my own experience—it is deeply intertwined with our own ability to continue acquiring knowledge and to continue to grow.

The people who want our partisanship generally try to compel our belief in a simplistic narrative. We are, however, much more likely to arrive at the truth if we take the time to study a situation and absorb the chain of events and differing perspectives that have contributed to it.

Intellectual humility is the very essence of the humanities—since, in practice, they require the ability to “see” and empathize with different points of view.

Our Wellesley humanities faculty recently received a highly competitive Mellon Foundation grant that will unite our many humanities departments around three goals. One of them is showing students how the humanities discover and add meaning to our world—and allow them to change the world for the better.

I know our graduates are ready to bring the disciplined curiosity that they developed here to bear on the greatest questions of our day.

And, clearly, intellectual humility is absolutely essential in the sciences and medicine. In fact, it is the only way that we make meaningful progress.

The costs of intellectual arrogance are extremely high. I think of my own field of medicine—and specifically cardiology—where for years, the medical establishment believed that women didn’t suffer from heart disease to the same extent as men, when it is actually the leading cause of death for women. And because heart disease presents differently in women than in men, women are still undertreated today.

Studies confirm that we tend to overestimate our own knowledge. And we all are subject to confirmation bias, to seeking the evidence that validates what we already think we know. But discovery is often the product of following evidence that doesn’t fit what we’ve been taught—that may not fit even our own deeply held beliefs.

As a graduate student, astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala ’90, who today is dean of science at MIT, was warned off the LIGO project in its early days—the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.

Her peers considered it a career-ruining crazy idea. The project was intended to directly observe gravitational waves, which had been predicted by Albert Einstein. But direct detection was thought to be absolutely impossible, because an instrument would have to be built to measure an effect a thousand times smaller than a single proton.

Nergis has said that she herself could not wrap her head around the possibility. But she didn’t allow that snap judgment to stop her. The idea of building tools to push the frontiers of measurement by so many orders of magnitude was exciting—and so was “chafing against conformity.” So, she joined LIGO. She was not only instrumental to the ultimate detection of gravitational waves, but she helped to open up a whole new way to conduct astronomy.

I urge you to embrace intellectual humility not just for your own sake, but for the sake of the world around us. This is an uneasy world at the moment, with conflicts and tensions between nations, and tensions within nations that threaten democracies around the globe.

Some countries, including this one, seem to be splitting into factions, with political disagreements becoming cultural and social disagreements. As a result, the possibility of finding common ground even with our neighbors is becoming vanishingly small.

Here in the United States, a Pew survey from 2022 found that the vast majority of Republicans believe Democratic policies are hurting the country, and vice versa. What’s worse, however, is that these harsh judgments have migrated from policies to people—with overwhelming and increasing majorities in both parties viewing the members of the other party as close-minded, dishonest, and immoral.

If you no longer trust the honesty and integrity of the other side there can be no progress, no compromise, and no negotiation. Civic participation becomes all about adhering to the dogma of the group, and only the rarest of political leaders, such as Rep. Au, work toward bipartisan agreement. In a democracy, where we share power with people with competing ideas, change becomes almost impossible.

But none of us is merely the sum of our positions. All of us deserve to be seen and acknowledged in the fullness of our humanity—and it is in that humanity that hope for common ground lies.

Here at Wellesley, we’ve encouraged you to become your own most authentic selves. We’ve also helped you learn to communicate across differences of all kinds, both in the classroom and through the residential curriculum designed to help you understand the value of engaging with people whose perspectives are unlike your own. Managing disagreement with civility is one of the most important skills anyone can learn.

At a recent summit we held at Wellesley titled “Renewing Democracy,” we heard from Layla Zaidane , president and CEO of Future Caucus, an organization that brings together young elected leaders in Congress and state legislatures, across party divides.

Layla told us that when she hears something she disagrees with to the point that she wants to yell, she just says, “Tell me more.”

Tell me more—what a brilliant way to slow things down and create the possibility of mutual understanding! What a brilliant way to uplift people who feel unheard or misunderstood by bringing them into the discussion!

I hope that in future, when you encounter people who disagree with you, you lead with your curiosity—and not just about the position, but also about the person behind it. The building of bridges between people is often how change happens.

In 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, as you probably recall, a self-described neo-Nazi cruelly drove his car into a group of counterprotestors in the aftermath of a white nationalist rally. One woman was killed and dozens of people were injured. Constance Paige Young was one of the injured. Later, she found herself building a friendship with another injured man, Bill Burke, as they helped each other deal with the trauma.

She learned that Bill had grown up in the Midwest flying the Confederate flag, until he understood fully what it meant and rejected much of what it represented.

“Admittedly,” Constance wrote, “if I had known about his upbringing before meeting him, it would have given me pause. But I can’t fault people for the culture that they came up in, if they’ve made a sincere effort to grow, learn, and change. Bill’s support for me has been invaluable.”

“Sometimes,” she said, “we find community in places and among people [where] we least expect it.”

In my own experience, the greatest adventure in life is other people. Don’t cut yourself off from that adventure by judging them too quickly or subscribing to a cartoonish view of who they are.

Assume that they are as complex as you. And if you hope to persuade them, you will never succeed if you do not begin from a position of respect.

Class of 2024, the world truly needs you.

We need you to help us move beyond the binary views that dominate our public discourse, toward a deeper understanding of the complexities—one that admits a hope of solutions.

We need you to cultivate a bit of skepticism about the received wisdom in your field and to follow your curiosity in your own work, because that is how progress happens.

We need you to help us knit together our frayed civic life, with a willingness to listen to others and to work with them on shared goals.

We need, above all, your patience, your kindness, your thoughtfulness, and your ability to view challenging situations through the eyes of love.

Class of 2024, I cannot wait to see the world you shape.

Thank you.