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Dayton Docket

Law Dean Andrew Strauss Graduation Speech: Seeking the Truth as Lawyers

By Dean Andrew Strauss

On behalf of our faculty and staff, it is my great privilege to welcome you to the commencement exercises for the class of 2022. Today, we celebrate our J.D., M.S.L. and LL.M. graduates’ academic accomplishments both inside and outside the classroom. 

After three years of missed commencements, virtual observances, and hybrid ceremonies, we are all finally back in this arena celebrating in a way befitting of this meaningful occasion. 

Graduates, my wish for you today is to truly experience this singular right-of-passage in all of its depth. 

Be aware of and savor its sensory riches. 

The visual uniformity of your classmates all attired in coal-black robes accented by strange flat hats. 

The aromatic sweetness of the perfume emanating from your festively dressed family and friends.

The commanding sound of voices administering ancient incantations echoing throughout this cavernous arena.

But beneath this sensory melange, there is another level to your experience. 

So as to truly mark this day, take a moment to gather yourselves, and ask beneath all that swirl of sensation what is it that you are also feeling inside. 

Seriously, if you will, just take a moment…

Commencement comes from the root to commence which means to begin. So perhaps you are feeling a sense of newness, of excitement or anticipation, for your future that is about to unfold? 

But then, there is the parallel reality that something important too is ending. So, maybe there is a poignant feeling of loss, of bereavement even, for the life and the community (with both its beauty and challenges) you have all created during your time at UDSL. 

Perhaps this is matched by a sense of satisfaction, maybe pride, for the achievement of getting through law school and everything else that you have accomplished during your time at UDSL.

And then there is the ever-present existential reality, symbolized so powerfully by our ceremony here today, that life is impermanent and always in flux. So, maybe too there is a vulnerable feeling of touching the ethereal, the spiritual, or maybe even your own transience.

With all of this, I wouldn’t be surprised if beyond the celebrating and reverie you feel all blended in one stew, excited, wistful, relieved, adrift, hopeful, and perhaps much more.

So, with your revealed feelings and sense of awe for this day front and center, my hope now is to commemorate it with the serious reflection it deserves.

At a time when we are awash with falsehoods from social media, from political leaders, and I’m sorry to say from some in our own profession, what could be more salient a topic than the truth, and as lawyers, our commitment to it.

And, where better to begin such a discussion at law school graduation than with that time-honored method of truth-seeking for which we have named our teaching technique.

For the uninitiated in the audience, the Socratic Method (as anyone of our graduates could tell you) is the process of analysis by which law professors try to lead students to the right (or true) answer in class.  

For the committed professorial practitioner of this craft, every student answer to a question will spur five more queries, with facts altered, assumptions probed, contradictions revealed. 

More than a few of our graduates can tell you that the experience of being subject to the Socratic Method can be very humbling. By exposing every answer to rigorous examination, the student learns that the foundations of the most firmly held views can always be questioned, that every proposition can be seen from a multiplicity of angles, and that the deeper our exploration, the less we often seem to know.

In fact, so complex is this search for truth that philosophers (including some connected to law) have developed an entire branch of their discipline, epistemology, just to explore its challenges. 

To illustrate a sampling of this complexity, day-to-day we generally trust our senses to give us information about what is true and yet, upon reflection we know they are far from reliable.

For example, we have understood since Copernicus that our daily sensory experience of seeing the sun rotating around the earth is illusory. 

Closer to home for us in law, some evidence professors have been known to start their first class with a staged theft. A confederate runs into the classroom and, say, steals a backpack. 

The professor will then question the stunned students about the details of what just happened (where did the assailant come from, what color shirt was he wearing, and the like), and invariably it turns out that the student eyewitnesses, relying primarily on their senses of sight and sound, offer radically different and unreliable answers.

Still more fundamentally, does it make sense to postulate that there even exists an independent objective reality that can be known? 

Modern quantum physics suggests maybe not, that our very attempt to observe reality, at least at the subatomic level, changes that reality. 

As our perspective has grown over the centuries, the problem of knowing the truth has grown with it. 

Developments from the renaissance through the enlightenment were successful in replacing what came to be regarded by many as questionable religious certainties of the past with what seemed to be iron laws of reason. 

But in our own postmodern era, we have seen as well the limits of rational certainties. 

I don’t believe it is hyperbole to say that the confusion and meaninglessness of living with not knowing is providing the psychological underpinnings for many of the social and political crisis that threaten our future.

To relieve the uncomfortable angst of living with uncertainty, many in our society are yielding to the false comfort of absolutist dogmas. 

The result, as we are seeing, is polarizing camps, each so desperately clinging to its need to claim truth, whatever the costs, that the very fabric of our society is being torn apart.

At least as threatening to our future are those who in the face of uncertainty so completely give up on the possibility of truth that they come to see its manipulation as just one more tool in the toolbox for gaining power.  

We see this in the proliferation of fake bots designed to perpetrate falsehoods on social media, the prevalence of conspiracy theorists who for their own ends sow social distrust and discord, and the out-right lies being told for political gain. 

Neither our moral order nor the legal manifestation of that order can long endure if we can no longer trust each other to tell the truth as best we can and in good faith. 

Ascertaining the truth is difficult.

Yes, but how can our court system preserve the legitimacy necessary to secure compliance with its rulings if judges come to be seen as manipulating law and facts for political aims without sincere regard to claims to truth?   

Similarly, how can our elected legislative and executive branch officials continue to command authority as the agreed upon focal points for political decision-making if cynicism about the truth overwhelms the factual basis for determining who among them have been rightfully elected to their positions?

Living with uncertainty is challenging for all of us, but our response to this uncertainty needn’t be tenaciously holding onto dogmas or replacing the pursuit of truth with the power-driven manipulation of truth.

There is another option, and that option is the one that you have embarked upon during your studies, characterized by the Socratic Method, at the University of Dayton. 

It is the option of earnest inquiry, to keep persevering day-by-day—with all of the struggle and difficulty that entails—to find the better, if not the, answer. 

And in the wake of the post-modern shattering of all previous certainties, to continue as well in the more encompassing quest for new more profound ways of knowing. 

Here too, you can find inspiration from your time at the University of Dayton. As a society of seekers in the humble and non-dogmatic pursuit of truth, the Marianists provide a rich example of how we can all embark upon that quest.

And so, graduates, as you take your place as the next generation of guardians of the legal system, I ask you to think about your own relationship to the truth.

With the power that marks this special day, how truly meaningful it could be if you can sanctify it with a solemn pledge to yourself to commit to the continued pursuit of truth, come what may. 

In that way might you live your lives so as to wholeheartedly seek your own life’s meaning, help preserve the integrity of the legal system, and find solidarity in a common search, if not common answers, across our political divide.

Good luck and Godspeed!

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