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Remarks at Opening Exercises

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA


Welcome to the women and men of the Class of 2006 and to the Harvard experience that awaits you. I would also like to extend a special welcome to the transfer students and their families who are here with us this evening.

Having just finished my freshman year as President I can recall how you must feel. While I’m beginning to develop the capacity to keep straight FAP, FUP, FOP and even FDO — there is much that I still have to learn.

I remember one of my first Harvard experiences after being named President. I walked into the Coop, said that I was Mr. Summers, the new President of the University, and that I would like to get a Coop number. The person behind the counter looked skeptically at me and said, “That’s nice, do you have a Harvard ID?”

I said, “Not yet.”

He said, “Well, then you don’t get a Coop number.”

I think I can make one determination this evening with absolute confidence. You are without a doubt among the top two classes admitted to this University during my tenure here as President.

But seriously, this class is a truly remarkable group of people — you include professional musicians and successful entrepreneurs, published scientists and poets, star athletes and dedicated social service providers, speakers of more than a dozen languages, and experts in countless areas. Each one of you stands out for your potential.

Reading your admissions essays, I was reminded that Newton and Einstein did most of their thinking about physics in their 20s, Alexander conquered most of the known world by the time he was 30, and when he was the age of a Harvard graduate, Mozart had composed all of his violin concertos. Of course when he was my age, he had been dead for 14 years.

So — not to put too much pressure on you — enjoy the rest of Freshman Week and then get cracking.

But that is not to say anyone should ever feel intimidated. Everyone here belongs, and everyone will find their place.

Harry Truman always said of his time in the United States Senate, “The first six months I wondered why I was there. And ever after, I wondered why all of the rest of them were there.”

So it is at Harvard. Surveys find that most Harvard freshmen think they are in the bottom half of their class when they arrive. By the time they leave here, surveys find that most Harvard seniors feel they are in the top half. You are all certainly lucky to be at a place that somehow manages to teach its students how to repeal the basic rules of statistics.

You know, I must at this point confess that I did my undergraduate work at a small technical school down Massachusetts Avenue, but also along the Charles River. I hope you will consider this to be a small oversight in an otherwise well-lived life, because I quickly came to my senses and found my way over to this place.

There will be many things, many traditions that you will come to know, but what I believe is most important about this place we all find ourselves at is that it is a center for the development and transmission of new and original thought and ideas. And increasingly it is ideas that are ultimately most important in this world.

As Isaiah Berlin once remarked — governments fall because of ideas developed by professors in the quiet of their study. A century ago, Americans could expect only to live to my current age of 47. An educated guess would be that the children of the freshman class will live on average to age 100. There’s really only one fundamental reason why this is possible — new ideas in medical and biological sciences.

So much of what we take for granted reflects human imagination, research, and ingenuity. I can’t imagine what life could have been like before the copying machine. Some of you probably can’t imagine what writing a paper was like when I was a student. You had your ideas, you sat at this thing called a typewriter, and if halfway through the page you made a mistake or changed your mind, you retyped the page.

Our concepts of human community change as well. That two-thirds of Harvard students during their Harvard years now live with a person of a different race would have been inconceivable at the time I went to college. Within the lifetimes of many who are here, professors were being turned away from this University because of their Jewish faith.


In just 45 months most of you will be Harvard alumni. How can you get the most out of your time here?

It was William Butler Yeats who said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” If I have but one wish for each of you, it is that in the years ahead you be set on fire, that your mind be captured by some area of human understanding, that you develop a passion for understanding, for comprehending, for progressing, that is so central to successful people everywhere. The University and its faculty have no more important goal than helping you in this quest.

Fires cannot be controlled, passions cannot be predicted, and you are all very different people. But let me give you this advice as you embark on your journey here at Harvard.

First, follow your passion, not your calculation. Yes, you should choose courses that cohere and follow a program towards your objective, but most importantly, do or pursue what captures your imagination. Don’t let anything stand in the way of your curiosity, of what you really want to do.

Be open to every possibility. For most of you sitting in this place, four years from now what will have been most important at Harvard is something you do not now imagine.

Second, remember the faculty is here for you. There is no more important responsibility for any of us as members of the faculty than teaching and working with you, the students of Harvard College. 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.

Do not be shy. One of the stars of our economics department was at one time a sophomore at Harvard College while I was a professor here. He knocked on the door of my office and I said hello. He said hello. I said, “What’s up?” He said, “Prof. Summers, that paper you wrote on unemployment is really pretty good, but it has a number of mistakes. I’d like a job as a research assistant.” That led to an enormously productive relationship for both of us.

It may not be everyone’s chosen approach to the faculty, but I promise you that you will find faculty very willing to respond to your interests, to your curiosity, and to your invitations. Do not feel that you are ever wasting anyone’s time pursuing your curiosity or your interest. That is what we are all here for.

Third, learn how to learn. Any fact that you encounter in your studies now is not very likely to remain very relevant and important over your whole career, unless of course you want to retire when you are 37.

For centuries, we’ve all existed on what I like to call the fuel tank model of education, where you fill up the tank when you are young and empty it out over the years, till you no longer know anything relevant and retire. In a world of multiple careers, more rapid change, and longer lives, it is continuous learning that will be the key to success.

Almost no one who is involved in managing the Internet majored in it during college, because when they went to college, it wasn’t there to study.

Fourth, learn from each other. Much of the most important learning you do here will be from each other. You will maximize that learning if you take advantage of the diversity of the Harvard community, reaching out to people from very different backgrounds than your own.

A century ago, this was a place where New England gentlemen taught other New England gentlemen. Today, we are so much better because of our diversity, because of our commitment to seeking excellence everywhere, because of our commitment to assuring diverse perspectives in all that we think about.

Follow your passions, take advantage of the faculty, learn how to learn, and learn from each other — I hope these ideas will contribute in some small way to your experience here.


Let me say, in conclusion, to the first-years sitting here and their parents: I remember very well, like it was yesterday, the day just about exactly 30 years ago today when I bid my own parents farewell after a similar ceremony at M.I.T. I remember the look in my parents’ eyes that day, the pride in what I was going to do, the sadness that I would not be at the family breakfast table the next day, the excitement about their son’s future, the apprehension about their son’s future.

This day does, in some ways, mark the end of one stage in the relationship between parent and child. But while some of you may know the transition may not be without its frustrations, it also represents the beginning of a different and equally fulfilling stage in a relationship between child and parent.

Students, call home often. Parents, don’t worry too much.

Good luck and Godspeed to the Class of 2006.