Learning, truth, and fear

Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Dec. 12, 2019.
By Donal O’Shea
New College exists to prepare intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement. How do we know whether we’re succeeding?
Well, we observe our graduates. And we ask them. Some replies are striking.
After thinking a minute, for instance, one alum said that New College taught him intellectual fearlessness.
Intellectual fearlessness. What does fearlessness have to do with learning?
Quite a lot, actually.
Learning is hard work, and deeply personal. It is about seeking truth. And seeking truth is often uncomfortable — it requires conquering fear.
That was really brought home to me last month when New College made the national news three times in one week for entirely different reasons.
First, Charlayne Hunter-Gault interviewed New College graduate Derek Black for her “Race Matters” series on PBS.
When he entered New College in 2010, Derek was the heir-apparent to the leadership of the white nationalist movement. His father had started Stormfront, then the largest racist community on the internet. His godfather and close mentor was David Duke, former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Derek had started an internet site and run a radio program for teens espousing white nationalist tenets in softer, more politically palatable terms than those used by his elders.
At New College, Derek came to question, then reject, the beliefs in which he was raised. Shortly after graduation he publicly recanted them. He went on to pursue a doctorate in Medieval History at the University of Chicago and has been increasingly active in fighting white nationalism and alerting others of the dangers it presents.
Derek’s conversion is a compelling tale (well told in Eli Saslow’s book “Rising out of Darkness”), involving social shunning, a small group who invited him to shabbat dinners despite his antisemitism, an intense study of language and history, vigorous debate with trusted friends, notably classmate Allison Gornik, and hostile classmates.
The pursuit of truth ruptured Derek’s connection with his parents, whom he loved deeply, and the close community, however flawed, that had nurtured him.
A second instance underscoring the link between learning, fear and the pursuit of truth originated with New College professor Lauren Hansen’s decision to use the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall to teach a class on modern Germany. She collaborated with several other professors and students to build a replica of the wall on the main plaza at New College.
Throughout the term, her students re-enacted events associated with the wall. They plastered it with graffiti. They re-enacted speeches of JFK and Ronald Reagan on one side of the wall, and in both English and German of East German author and patriot Christa Wolf on the other. On Nov. 8, the students tore down the wall, a day before that day 30 years that few of my generation will forget. The story was picked up nationally by NPR.
This is superb teaching. The students in that class took risks that in turn afforded them a visceral understanding of Cold War Europe and the power of a walls to divide and to harm. Their teacher, Professor Hansen, took a bigger risk — her replica wall might have drawn ridicule. But she forged ahead, knowing that today’s digital natives craved the tangible.
A third national story emerged from the release of the movie “Dark Waters,” in which actor Mark Ruffalo portrays New College alumnus Rob Bilott. Eight years into a fast-paced career as an attorney in a corporate law firm that specialized in defending large companies, Rob took a phone call from a distressed West Virginian farmer, with a thick Appalachian accent. The farmer reported that his farm was failing and his cattle were dying. The cause: the byproducts from DuPont’s Teflon production. Every institution and every person whom the farmer had approached for help had turned him away. DuPont owned the county and everyone in it. Rob had spent summers at his grandmother’s house near the farm. Rob was a lawyer who did not live in the county, and all lawyers did the same work, didn’t they?
Rob took the case pro bono, and so began an all-consuming two-decade-plus odyssey — personal, scientific, and legal — that uncovered a massive public health crisis and upended the global multibillion-dollar flouropolymer industry.
DuPont won the initial four-year battle, but their victory, almost soul-shattering to the farmer and Rob, was Pyrrhic. DuPont had cynically complied with a subpoena by dumping 110,000 pages of unindexed company correspondence on Rob. They were confident that no one could review them before the court date, and no one would do so after. They were right about the former, but not the latter.
A few pages mentioned a chemical, PFOA — perfluoro-octanoic acid. It was not on any Environmental Protection Agency list. Rob had never heard of it.
That omission turned out to be the thread that unraveled an entire industry. DuPont had bought PFOA from 3M to manufacture Teflon. Scientists in both companies had established the stuff caused testicular, liver and cancer tumors in lab animals and likely damaged DNA. They worked up protocols for how to dispose of it. But they ignored the protocols, and no one had informed the EPA of the findings.
Corporate headquarters at DuPont had considered switching to another chemical. But it would be expensive, and why risk the profits of a billion-dollar enterprise?
Rob won judgments that had DuPont agree to fund scientifically rigorous public health studies. Even with a willing partner, such studies take years to complete. But DuPont waged war on Rob. It played rope-a-dope, threatening him and his colleagues with financial and psychological ruin. Rob experienced physical symptoms from the stress. His law firm was attacked, and the firm’s legal counsel recommended that his firm dismiss him.
Years later, the scientific studies clearly established that DuPont’s chemicals had damaged the health of its employees and inhabitants of the region. And not just in West Virginia, but across the U.S. and worldwide.
An article entitled “The Lawyer who became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” in the New York Times magazine told the story in 2016. A Netflix documentary followed, and then “Dark Waters.” Rob’s book “Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s 21 Year Old Fight against DuPont” brings the story up to 2018.
Here, as before, we instinctively applaud the search for truth.
Although there are many reasons to learn (and teach) — mastery of useful skills, technical sophistication and the like — the search for truth ranks highest. Our understanding of what is true may change as we build on the work of others and learn more, but never doubt that truth exists.
Why, then, does seeking truth so often involve overcoming fear?
In a famous book “The Value of Science,” written in 1905, one of my intellectual heroes, Henri Poincaré, proposed two reasons we fear truth.
The first is that identifying truth requires independence. Effective action, in contrast, requires being united and closing ranks. As a result, people often associate truth with weakness.
The second reason is that truth is often inconvenient.
One might also wonder whether we are conflating moral truth and scientific truth. Poincaré says he cannot separate them. “For those who love one, love the other. And those who fear one, fear the other … Those who love truth recognize that truth alone is beautiful … Those who fear truth are those who are above all concerned with consequences.”
I agree, and I thank our wonderful community from the bottom of my heart for the support that has made deep learning — the search for truth and the overcoming of fear — possible here at New College. Preparing students for lives of great achievement and for careers means encouraging and equipping them to seek the truth.
— Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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