2014 Remarks at Morning Prayers

Appleton Chapel, Memorial Church

As delivered.

As we return for this new academic year, we welcome more than 6,000 new students from every part of the globe to pursue degrees and intellectual passions here at Harvard. Members of the entering class in the College come from 69 countries and every state in the Union. Our new graduate and professional students arrive from 122 countries. All these students have made the choice to come here, not to study on line, but to be part of a class, a laboratory, a seminar, an entryway, a section, a chorus, an ensemble, a cast, a team — what I would like to think of in my most idealistic moments as being part of the symphony of Harvard.

Students of course come for the formal curriculum. But they also come for one another. Faculty and staff do the same, knowing that the inspiration from a colleague’s insights or a student’s question can make all the difference — to one’s work and to the quality of one’s daily experience.

For most of this fall’s new arrivals, as for most of us already living our lives here, this community is more varied and more diverse than any other we ever have or likely will ever know. National, ethnic, racial, religious, political differences challenge us to challenge ourselves, to revisit our assumptions, to see the world through others’ eyes, to expand our understanding, to find common spaces we can share even as we explore and celebrate our differences.

That is the project that Harvard represents: the recognition that being here is about being together. This is a bold and a brave commitment. This year we are acutely aware of conflicts that seem to be tearing peoples apart across the nation and around the globe. And we have been recently reminded of frictions here on our own campus by those who have felt marginalized or unsafe. All the more reason for us to be especially mindful, especially vigilant, especially dedicated to what we believe in: that a shared commitment to learning, to the pursuit of truth, to the rigor and respect of argument and evidence bind us together across our differences. And we know too that our differences are the foundation of our greatest strength, enabling each of us to grow beyond who we could be alone.

That is the ideal of the symphony. The orchestra would not sound nearly so good if it was just made up of 100 oboes. And there is another lesson we can learn from the symphony as well: It wouldn’t sound so good if its members didn’t come together and practice. We should not forget that as we seek our harmonies among the many differences in our lives. We come together because we know we will be enriched by our diversity. But that is not something that just happens — without effort, without practice, without difficulties. It is a commitment. It requires work. And the notes we play will not always be perfect.

I ask you today as we begin this new year to rededicate yourselves to that commitment, to that effort. To cherishing our diversity, to making it work, to enabling all of us to be our best selves. To all together performing that Harvard symphony.