To my first Harvard graduating class, the class of 2002, good afternoon. Today marks an end and a beginning. The beginning of the rest of your lives. The end, I hope, of the stale custom of calling commencement an end and a beginning.
Today we celebrate a hallowed Harvard tradition. The baccalaureate service offers us a chance to reflect on all that you’ve learned during the past 4 years, yet to ponder the vast changes that will ensue when we spring you on an unsuspecting world 2 days from now when I utter some fancy words – fancy words that will guarantee you a lifetime of mailings from the Harvard alumni association. The kind with return envelopes enclosed.
But the baccalaureate is not merely a chance for you to meditate on your hopes and dreams for the future. More importantly, it is a requirement – a requirement that all of you listen for at least a few minutes to me during the last speech when I have any meaningful authority over you.
There are many things that I would like to say to you on an occasion like this. How proud of you I am. How the past, present and future come together at a moment like this. But especially how important it is for you to know – that no diploma will be conferred unless all of you have returned your library books, paid your telephone bills and given back all those dining hall dishes.
As Peter’s document in your program tells you, the history of the Baccalaureate service goes back over 6 centuries to Cambridge, England when graduates were forced to sit through the Baccalaureate service with, “bowed head over which… hood was drawn, a picture of abject humility and utter embarrassment.” I’ve seen people at Harvard in many states, but never in abject humility.
Things improved somewhat in the new world. The Baccalaureate has been celebrated here since the very first Harvard Commencement in 1642. Records of that commencement show that all nine students in the class received diplomas. And as we researched grade inflation, I’m told that new research shows that of the nine, one graduated summa, one magna highest honors, one magna, three cum, two cum, general studies. The records indicate that the ninth student was forced to wear a scarlet B-minus on his clothing for the rest of his life.
Commencement grew with the university and Cambridge did too. By the end of the 18th century, there was still no Charles Hotel, nor even a Sheraton Commander. Contemporary accounts describe the pitching of tents in Harvard yard by the proud parents of the graduates. As one contemporary account had it, “By nightfall [the yard] was paved with watermelon rinds, peach stones, and various debris… all flavored with rum and tobacco smoke.” Then, commencement was the wildest and most raucous party of the year.
Some things don’t change. Commencement is still a time of celebration, and as recently as last year, tents en masse had returned to the area outside Mass Hall. It felt like a welcome when I visited last year, but I can’t say I missed them this year.
To be sure, I am still learning about Harvard’s rituals. I suffer from a lifelong deficiency in this regard having spent my own undergraduate days about a mile down Mass. Ave., at the little technical institute where all the buildings have numbers for names.
There were some things then and now that MIT didn’t have as well figured as Harvard. At MIT, if you made it through four years with a solid D-plus average, it was not possible to tell your parents truthfully at Commencement that you were graduating with a 4.0.
I can make one determination this afternoon with absolute confidence: You are the most impressive, smartest, the best dressed, the nicest, the most honorable, the most extraordinary class to graduate during my tenure as President of Harvard University.
Actually, judging by what the admissions office said when you came, and by what you’ve accomplished – papers written, plays performed, an undefeated football season, fellowships won, remarkable acts of public service, brilliant theses on all kinds of topics– you are a remarkable group of people.
But we at Harvard hold our alumni to high standards. Think about this: Newton and Einstein did their main thinking about physics in their 20s, Alexander conquered most of the known world by the time he was 30, and when he was your age, Mozart had composed all his violin concertos. Of course, when he was my age, he had been dead for 14 years.
So, blow off the rest of this week, have a great Commencement. Then Friday morning, get cracking!
Actually, it is striking that the rituals of this week are called commencement rather than what they also are, culmination. They are called that because this is a time of transition in your life – not, to be sure, the first, or the last. I got a chance to see what your last transition was like when I welcomed the freshman class to Harvard last fall. Some were swaggering around like they owned the place, some of them had fear in their eyes, all had a certain apprehension, but an excitement about what lay ahead.
Now that you are comfortable members of the community, now that you have found a niche, a subject to study, roommates and friends, activities that satisfy, you again face a moment of transition, not to Harvard, but from Harvard — a moment, that is in some ways even more significant.
It is an important moment of transition in at least three important respects.
Choose a Path
First, with your graduation from Harvard, you make a transition from a period in life when choices seem to expand continually to a point where inevitably options will close off – where there will be forks in the road and roads not taken. This is never completely easy. I remember as an 11 year old, realizing that I was never going to play second base for the Philadelphia Phillies. My coaches had come to that conclusion several years earlier. I remember the period in my life when I choose my career path as an economist, and I was not without some sense of loss for the opportunities I was moving past.
But you will find when you choose a path, there is a possibility for great satisfaction of a kind you may not yet have known. The satisfaction of developing your own unique talent, your own capacity to make a unique contribution, for being valued not just for a sense of possibility but for what you have achieved.
Those who make transitions into careers most comfortably – those for whom the “what could have beens” fall away most rapidly, are those who pursue a passion, who build their own uniqueness, who are not one of the crowd, who are never fungible in what they are, who stand for something special themselves.
Whether it is the doctors who spend time in a South Asian village, the artists who devote themselves to special-needs children, the lawyers who develop an expertise in a sector that excites them, the entrepreneurs who start new businesses, the intellectuals who break from the pack and try something new, or the scientists who put forth a new hypothesis, or countless others. It is those individuals who are truly individual who are most satisfied in their careers, and it is they who often contribute the most.
From Taking to Giving
Second, with your graduation, you move in a real sense from a time of taking and absorbing to a time of giving and contributing. To be sure, you, as a class, have contributed much to Harvard, to your friends, to your family. But now, as you go out into the world, there will be less taking care of you and more will be expected of you.
It is said — I hope it isn’t true — that surgeons are taught by the method of watch one, do one, teach one. In a sense that’s a metaphor for life, and all of you are coming to the end of the stage of watching one. Soon enough you will be in the stage of doing one, and before very long, it will be the stage of teaching one. And believe me, wistful as you may be about aspects of this moment, it only gets better.
Rabbi Judah the Prince once said, “I have learned much from my teachers, I have learned more from my friends, but I have learned most from my students.” I am confident that every member of the Harvard faculty would agree. I don’t mean this just as an admonition to become a teacher, much as I hope some of you will do that.
I mean in a broader sense that one often receives the greatest satisfaction by helping to develop and support the careers of those who follow you. Whether it is your younger siblings, your friends, colleagues, or the Harvard College students who will soon enough come to you through our alumni networks, make a difference by what you give back to others.
Give not just to your organization, not just to your family, not just to your friends. Think also about the many communities of which you are a part, the place where you live, the country in which you reside – our world. And think about how you can contribute.
There are many ways to give. Give back also by offering your intelligent curiosity and capacity to question. Always ask. You know, I’ve been asked many times this year what the implications of Enron are for education. Many think, and they may right, that it is more instruction in ethics. But you don’t need to go to Harvard – or even Yale — to know that it is a bad idea to falsify accounts or shred material documents. The easy part in life is knowing the difference between right and wrong, the hard part is standing up when things are wrong. If you have reason to believe the emperor has no clothes, always ask the question.
Dependence to Independence
There is a third transition. You are becoming independent – no longer dependent. Parents out there, as President of Harvard, I can tell you, the good news is the tuition bills are over. As former Treasury Secretary, I can tell you the bad news is that you can no longer claim your children as dependents.
I’m sure you remember looking at your parents in a different way, and them looking at you in a different way as they were ready to leave you at College.
Now the relationship with your parents changes again, but the importance of your relationship does not.
Over time you will again and again be reminded of how much family matters. I’m reminded of this thinking back over the period of my Installation ceremony last October. As you can imagine, it was a period of great excitement, but also some stress and tension. I remember many things, but the most vivid is of rehearsing my inaugural speech in the basement of my house the night before I was to give it in Tercentenary Theatre. I opened the binder to start, and instead of my remarks I found the speech proposed by my twin 11 year old daughters. Perhaps I should have used it instead. It was rather brief. It read: Harvard is good, Harvard is great, let us go forth and educate!”
The smile on their faces, as I read their lines, will be my most enduring memory of the last year.
You are headed into the one period in your life when most of you will be free agents. You will no longer be someone else’s dependent but will not yet have dependents of your own. What you will have, and I know is on your mind right now, is your friends.
As you take care of yourself, as you plan for your career, nurture those friendships. It will be the best investment in your future that you can make.
From taking to giving, from considering to choosing, from dependent to free agent – this is a time of culmination and commencement, a time of important transitions. All humor aside, you are as remarkable a group as has ever gathered here in this church. Perhaps more than ever, we live in a world that requires thoughtfulness and needs remarkable people. A world that can and will progress toward being a better place, not because progress is preordained, not because progress is some sort of manna that comes from heaven, but because people make progress through their own contributions. And you will too.
63 years ago, President Conant told the graduates of the class of 1939, “Neglect the tumult of the moment, do not be afraid to be yourself. Choose a field of effort where you may develop your talents to the utmost. Labor honestly and selflessly in your chosen calling. Then in spite of the warfare of ideologies and the outcome of the current struggles if your hopes be realized, at some later day may it be written of you, ‘He [and today, she] also lived to build a finer civilization.’ In the multiplication of such epitaphs the greatness of a nation [and may I add in 2002, a world] may truly be read.”
Class of 2002, I wish you the best of luck. Go forth from here in confidence. Remember, wherever you go, every path connects you not only to where you are going, but to where you have been.
Godspeed, and veritas.