September 9, 2021
Dear Johns Hopkins Community:
Recently, on one of the final evenings of the summer, I stood outside Gilman Hall on our Homewood campus, truly elated to be welcoming the more than 1,400 new Johns Hopkins students who were gathered for our university’s Convocation ceremony. In person for the first time in two years, the event felt a bit like a cross between Commencement and an old drive-in movie.
So, in that spirit, in my remarks this year, I decided to invoke an episode from one of the classic shows I watched as a child (albeit in reruns): Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.
At first blush, a Cold War–era sci-fi series may not seem like an obvious vehicle for welcoming the Class of 2025 to an academic community in 2021. But over the past year, my mind kept returning to one episode that is quite pertinent to the current moment in America and beyond.
Titled “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” the episode tells the story of a quiet suburban neighborhood that experiences a series of inexplicable events: a light flashing in the sky, baffling power outages, and cars that suddenly won’t start. As these events mount, the residents become alarmed. When a local kid blames creatures from outer space and speculates that one of the families on the block might, in fact, be extraterrestrials in disguise, the neighbors are all too ready to believe it. They start to doubt and mistrust each other; then they fully turn on one another.
Before the credits roll, the audience sees a flying saucer and the two actual extraterrestrial visitors who, it turns out, were responsible for much of the mayhem. They did it to test their theory that humans are always on the precipice of turning against rather than toward one another. Faced with a little misinformation, the people play to type. Or, as the aliens trenchantly observe, “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find—and it’s themselves.”
This episode first aired in 1960, but its themes resonate powerfully in 2021. We live in a deeply polarized country. Surveys show that the number of Americans who believe that “most people can be trusted” is at its lowest point in decades. Far too often, when we encounter viewpoints that are different from or opposed to our own, we are more likely to attack the people making them rather than to argue with the ideas being expressed. In our country, and, indeed, around the world, people are becoming alien to one another in ways that make that Twilight Zone episode deeply relevant.
But as I told our newest students, we at JHU are able to write a different script because of who we are and what we do.
We are an academic community that pursues truth through fact-based research, reason, and vigorous, open-minded debate. We are a community that understands that creating knowledge is not a solo endeavor but a communal one. We work to inhabit a shared reality, where facts and reason are the coin of the realm. We are a community of scholars, researchers, and investigators that welcomes critique and skeptical inquiry from people whose backgrounds, experiences, political convictions, beliefs, and fields of study differ from our own. We know that without nurturing an environment that is hard-wired for vigorous disputation and debate, our capacity to support the creation of knowledge and truth will be compromised.
We are a community that defies The Twilight Zone’s dim view of human nature and instead models the capacity for advancement and comity through the demanding work of truth-seeking.
Every year, your openness, curiosity, and care for one another rejuvenates and inspires me—perhaps never more than at this critical moment in our collective history.
Thank you for making us all so proud of this magical place called Hopkins, and welcome back!