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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, Opening Exercises for the Class of 2008

Cambridge, MA

Welcome to the Class of 2008. I have some sense of what you have been going through with the hurly-burly of moving in and getting set, or maybe I should say what your parents have been going through with the hurly-burly of your getting moved in and getting set.

Three years ago, I returned to Harvard to take up my current position as president. It was a less digital age, and so in those days if you wanted to get a Coop number, what you did was, you went to the Coop. And so I went to the Coop, and I said, “I’m Larry Summers, the new president of the university, and I would like to get a Coop number.” The person behind the cash register said, “Where’s your Harvard ID?” And I said, “I don’t have one yet.” And they said, “Well, I’m very sorry, but then you don’t get a Coop number.” I tell this story each year to suggest that we all do make our way through certain frustrations and challenges.

Now, some of you, looking at this Yard, thinking of all the people who graduated from Harvard, believing the admissions essays of your colleagues and friends and roommates, may wonder how you will make your way in this place. Perhaps the best advice I can give you is to quote Harry Truman. Harry Truman said, during his retirement years, that “For my first six months in the United States Senate, I couldn’t figure out why I was there. For the rest of my time in the United States Senate, I couldn’t figure out why many of the rest of them were there.” Well, something like that may happen to some of you. Actually, Harvard performs an educational miracle. It is, I believe, an educational miracle. Year after year we seem to deny the laws of mathematics. Here’s how we do it. We survey the freshmen, and we ask them, do you think you’re in the top half of the class or in the bottom half of the class? About 60 percent say that they’re in the bottom half of the class. We also survey seniors. Are you in the top half of the class or are you in the bottom half of the class? And almost two-thirds say that they are in the top half of the class. It’s really quite remarkable what we are able to do for you.

You know, as Dean Kirby said, this is an important moment of transition for you as you leave home, as you join the Harvard community, as you move from a moment of being someone else’s responsibility to taking responsibility for yourself and, increasingly, taking responsibility for the world. But if we are at an important juncture in your lives, none of us can live our lives apart from the broader society and the broader world. And here, too, we are at a remarkable juncture. If you look over the last two decades, for the first time in all of human history, the way in which people live in countries where 2 billion people live has been completely transformed, with standards of living trebling in a generation and then continuing to accelerate. The number of people who live in conditions of freedom is greater than it has ever been in the history of the world. Our capacity here in the United States and around the world to combat disease is without precedent. The most sophisticated experts think that there are many people sitting out here who will live beyond the age of 100, thanks to the progress that we are making in medical science. There is more being written and more being read than at any point in the history of the world. Human ingenuity has created an Internet, which means that anybody sitting at a desk with a thousand-dollar piece of equipment has access to more information and knowledge than anyone on earth had access to 35 years ago.

And yet, at this same time in human history, human ingenuity has been used to conceptualize 747 passenger aircraft as destructive projectiles. At this same point in human history, a day’s trip from here by air and no distance at all by television transmission, thousands of people are being killed with machetes in Darfur. At this same point in human history, an AIDS epidemic is ravaging a continent, and life expectancy in nations where nearly a tenth of the people on earth live is actually going down.

What do the elements that are so positive have in common relative to the elements that are so troubling? Much of what we value, much of what we cherish, much of what we see, has opportunity. It is a reflection of the advance of knowledge, of the advance of openness and communication, of the spread of tolerance and sympathy for others. And much of what we find so troubling is a reflection of exactly the opposite, the closing of the human mind into extremism and fundamentalism, that doesn’t look to evidence, that doesn’t ask questions, that doesn’t permit inquiry, that doesn’t seek dialogue.

You are entering a remarkable community, the Harvard community. It is a community built on the idea of searching for truth, on the idea of open inquiry, on the idea of debate, on the idea of tolerance, on the idea of respect for others. You know, a university like this is a remarkable and paradoxical institution. In a sense, we are the most traditional and archaic of institutions. What other institutions in society do their major business in buildings that were built more than 200 years ago? In what other institutions in our contemporary world do people actually have the job title “Master”? In what other institutions in our contemporary world are the most important rituals celebrated by everybody dressing up in black gowns? We are in that sense archaic.

And yet, and yet, there is something remarkable about a place like this, because we’ve been doing it and we’re still here after 368 years. Samuel Eliot Morison, the great Harvard historian, many years ago did an analysis. He looked at all the positions in North America for which you could find a list. All of the editors of The New York Times, all of the presidents of General Electric, all of the owners of certain plots of land. And he said, what was the title that had the longest continuous history? And he claimed, at that time, that it was the title of President of Harvard University. And if you think about, despite all this archaic stuff, Harvard was a preeminent institution in the United States in 1900, and it is a preeminent institution today. What other institution that was preeminent in 1900 can say that? And that is a tribute to the fact that we practice the values we venerate. The values of seeking truth, the values of respecting others, the values of trying to be the best, the values of seeking knowledge, the recognition that education is the ultimate act of faith in the future.

Members of the Class of 2008, you today join this remarkable community. And I believe it is a remarkable community. Read today’s New York Times Magazine and you will see a Harvard professor shedding new light on the profound question of why an ordinary man, the son of a merchant who owned a theater that he tried to fill to make ends meet, who was born in Stratford-on-Avon, was able to write some of the most beautiful prose that’s been written in the last 2,000 years. You will find a book written by a professor whose classes you can take and whose office hours you can visit, that seeks to explain the threats of nuclear proliferation that we face today and to bring the best thinking to bear on their solution. Just 300 yards from here, in laboratories where quite a number of undergraduates work, researchers at Harvard have created stem cell lines that are the basis for the most exciting new approaches to curing diabetes, Parkinson’s, and many other diseases, and have made available more of that precious research for science from that lab that you can all be part of, than has been produced in the rest of the United States. A scholar here whose classes some of you will take is in Darfur today, working to publicize and stop that genocide. I could go on with examples like this. The House master of a House where many of you will live was the guiding force behind 1,200 scientists coming together globally to identify and measure and calibrate the problem of global warming. Another House master was part of the global effort to show a few years ago that the conception of the cosmos that we had wasn’t quite right — that not just were all the galaxies and stars and planets blowing apart, but that they were accelerating away from one another in a way that was very different than most had predicted.

You are a part of this community. And many of the most important achievements of this community will not be the achievements of the faculty, they will be your achievements and your classmates’ achievements. I don’t know enough to know what your class will achieve. I do know that the admissions office tells me that your class is yet more distinguished than any previous class, and I do know that in the last several classes there have been Harvard students who have performed in the major concert halls of the world, Harvard students who have had important roles on Olympic teams, Harvard students who found new planets around suns other than ours, Harvard students who’ve whispered in the ears of presidential candidates, Harvard students who’ve done many, many more things.

So you are part of a great community. You are part of a community whose values are the values that this world needs at an important time. What I want for you, in your years here, is that you make the most of this experience. Now there are different ways of doing that. Woodrow Wilson, who was president of Princeton before being president of the United States, once said, “The use of a university is to make young gentlemen as unlike their fathers as possible.” That, I hasten to suggest, is not our objective. Perhaps a different way of stating our objective is to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, who studied here and said years later that he was “set on fire” by his experience of reading the essays of Emerson during his freshman year. And it is my hope for all of you that you be set on fire, that you find your passion while you are here, that you figure out how you want to make a difference in this world and that you acquire the tools to do that while you are here.

And I have another hope for you. It’s a hope we talk about perhaps less frequently on occasions like this, but it is a hope no less important. I hope you find yourselves, and I hope you form the friendships and relationships here, that will be important to you for the rest of your life.

I’ve been speaking so far to you students. Let me just say a final word to the parents of the Class of 2008. I will remember as long as I live the look in my parents’ eyes when I left them after a ceremony very much like this one at MIT 33 years ago. The pride at what their son had accomplished, their apprehension about whether their son could keep himself organized on his own. The excitement for what lay ahead for me, the sadness that I would no longer be at the breakfast table with them and with my brothers. It was a poignant moment. It was a poignant moment because it marked a profound change in the relationship between parent and child. It marked a change to a different and, I can tell you, even more fulfilling relationship between children and parent.

Members of the Class of 2008: Take care of yourselves, and call home. Parents: Farewell.

Godspeed to the Class of 2008.