Dashiell Shulman ’21

March 15, 2019

Dashiell Shulman ’21 won first place with his moving speech about his own struggles at Amherst. It is titled β€œThe Best Defense Is Probably Not a Good Offense.” [Transcript]


"We must develop a societal strategy "for protecting the true in a post-truth world. "And the first step is that we must never stop saying "Donald Trump is a liar."

These are the words of Charles Blow in his New York Times opinion piece in defense of the truth. And this image seems to have become widespread. That the truth is under attack. Hoards of liars at the gates and the righteous horses of voracity struggling to hold them off. For Charles Blow, repeating Donald Trump is a liar, is like getting up to make sure that the door is locked. To stop saying it would be to give up the defenses.

Now to me, this response to a post-truth world has never seemed particularly likely to change many minds. I've never had any luck in a one-on-one conversation, a disagreement, by repeating things like: look at the facts. Or by calling the other person a liar. But most of us in this room will have the chance to vote in many more elections. And it would be a shame to never be able to participate in a race that does not feel like a siege on truth and knowledge.

So I understand where Donald Trump -- my apologies [laughter] -- where Charles Blow is coming from. The story I want to tell you today is about how I came to believe that those locked gates of truth are just as ineffective a tool for changing minds as is the battering ram of lies. And how I came to this belief, well I found myself on both ends of that battering ram at once. And the issue at hand was whether I could ever be happy at Amherst College.

I still remember the first night that I knew this was not my home. It was the last night of my visit to campus during my year on voluntary withdrawal. And I'd spent the three days before wandering, seeing friends, visiting places that had been important to me in my first year. But the thought of actually being back in school felt far off, abstract.

And then on that last night, nothing was abstract anymore. I found myself walking on Route 9, the same path I'd made a 2:00 AM habit in the many months at Amherst when sleep did not come easily. And as my feet recalled their turns, my brain remembered its steps, as well. The aching thoughts that had echoed in my head during those many sleepless nights, and it was awful.

I vowed right then to never again trust abstract propositions about how I could thrive at this school, to not trust facts about who I was and what this place could offer. 'Cause I knew then that the truth is something visceral, something you feel everywhere in your bones. And no amount of facts could stand up to it.

So this summer, I faced the dilemma. I'd grown, I was happier than I remembered being in years, and for the first time as an adult, I knew what I wanted to be doing with my life and I knew that I couldn't do it if I didn't return to Amherst. And so there was one part of me, this present, analytic self, who had all the facts. Facts about who I was and what I was capable of and how I could really make it here. And that part of me sat inside the palace. And there was another part of me, a memory of trauma that battered at the gates with a message. The message said, no matter what facts you think you have, no matter what you think you know, this is the truth. You'll never be at home in that place.

The unique gift of this unfortunate situation was the opportunity to be on both sides of a disagreement between the truth and the facts at once. To feel the incredulity in my brain when my heart still raced at the thought of returning. To feel the sense of betrayal in my body when I listened to it, the reasons why I could succeed here.

Some days, one or the other felt like more of a traitor, but most of the time, little changed. Turns out that repeating a mantra of truth or of facts does exactly what it's supposed to do. It keeps the gate shut. And one night, exhausted after another failed attempt to reconcile these parts of myself, I collapsed on my bed and let memories of Amherst wash over me. I experienced my best moments, shining beacons in seas of forgettable days. And my worst, days I wished I could've forgotten.

And by the time I reached that last night, I was in no state to fight. All I could do was watch myself, this young man in pain. And my only instinct was to help somehow. And I realized then that what I had been drowning out every time I told my body, just look at the facts, was its cry for help, its fear, its desire to protect me, the person it was fighting. And so the first thing I did when I went back to the part of myself that was inside the palace, was I opened the gates and let myself in.

I feel really lucky to say that my second semester back, I feel more fulfilled than I've ever been before. And I've had a life full of privilege and opportunity, but one of my closest values came from my struggle to decide whether or not to return to this school.

And so as you go forth tonight, this is what I ask of you. Whether you think the truth is out there or not, whether you think you have it or not, the next time you meet someone you think has just got it all, all wrong, don't lock the gates. Invite them in and maybe we can turn this siege into a city.