On Tuesday, May 24, the final convocation of the 2015-2016 academic year took place in Memorial Chapel. “21st Century Merchants of Doubt: Where Is Plato When We Need Him?” was the title of the event. The program opened with an organ solo from Lecturer of Music and University organist Kathrine Hanford, after which President Mark Burstein recognized students who received honors for their artistic, athletic, academic and community service achievements. The program provided a comprehensive list of these winners, as well as faculty recipients of awards. The musical selection of the convocation featured a piece titled “No Words” by Associate Professor of Music Mark Urness, performed by a group made up of Urness on electric bass, Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Jazz Studies José Encarnación on saxophone and Professor of Music Dane Richeson on percussion.
Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science and Professor of Biology Elizabeth Ann De Stasio ‘93 introduced John P. Dreher, the Lee Claflin-Robert S. Ingraham Professor of Philosophy. Dreher joined Lawrence’s faculty in 1963, and is a two-time recipient of the Babcock Award “for outstanding service to students.” Dreher’s academic interests involve environmental ethics, applied ethics and the history of philosophy. Dreher says that he aims “to teach ethics down here, where we live, not pie-in-the-sky ethics.” He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. De Stasio’s introduction was focused primarily on her experience as one of his students during her time at Lawrence, characterizing him as almost exclusively and “terrifyingly” Socratic in his ability to teach students the true meaning of skepticism and to really learn how to think.
Dreher demonstrated how corporations often manipulate the difference between knowledge and opinion—where knowledge is defined as infallible awareness and certainty known beyond any possible doubt. Dreher stated that there are people who will convince and manipulate the masses to believe what they want.
Dreher asserted that there are two types of people: autonomous selves and bonded selves. The autonomous self is “wholly constituted by what is under their own skin, and experiences with others are purely coincidental.” The bonded self is “what we might think of as more altruistic.”
Dreher mentioned three characters who engage in charity work: one of pure selfishness; one who gets a “glow” from the work, but does not necessarily believe in or care about the cause; and another who does care about the cause, but is also happy with the work she does for the organization. Some might argue this last character is not altruistic because the individual carrying out the task is still happy with the outcome. Dreher, however, tells us that it is not wrong to enjoy helping others.
Senior Ilan Blanck spoke of how much he enjoyed convocation: “Dreher provided a lot to think about; I had forgotten a lot of the Plato stuff. I wish I could have read ‘The Republic’ four years later and actually maybe understand a bit more. It made me think about how easy it is to persuade someone in the other direction, especially when you consider you don’t even need proof. It’s easy to put someone or something down, but much harder to build something up.”