Class of 2006 – I count myself as one of you. We all graduate from Harvard this week!
And we’ve got some things in common:
• Our Harvard time felt like it went by very fast, and we are ready for quite a vacation.
• We are on our own – no more Harvard housing and we won’t be eating any more Harvard food.
• We were here a while, and we never saw Harvard lose a football game to Yale.
• We think some professors, some members of the faculty did very well by us – and others were well … less well disposed. Think about it.
• We are ready for the next chapter in our lives – yet not sure just what comes next. We wonder about banking – and also about how to achieve the greatest fulfillment. About travel – and staying reasonably close to those we love. About achieving all we can – and staying faithful to ourselves.
We will leave with recognitions of various kinds, some marked on parchment, some engraved on pins or plaques – some not. It is really too soon, really too soon for any of us, to know how much, or just what, we have accomplished at Harvard. But one thing is for sure: the world has high expectations of anyone who spends time here.
Of course, whatever we do, we will take Harvard with us. We have formed relationships here that will last the rest of our lives. In December, I married the woman I met in my first year at Harvard. Some of you may do similarly. We have all stored up so many memories. Some are wonderful. Some are painful. Some memories are the kind the passage of time turns to sober wisdom; some, the kind the passage of time makes funnier and funnier. All of these memories will shape our complex feelings about and for this special place.
To be sure, there are some differences between our situations, mine and yours:
• My friends and I will not follow each other’s progress on facebook.com.
• I have not had to pay tuition these last years for my Harvard education. But then, again, my parents already lost me, and your parents are about to lose you, as a tax deduction.
• I doubt anyone will warn me – as I am here to warn you – that your graduation depends on your returning all your silverware to your dining hall by 8 a.m. on Thursday morning.
• As I go on sabbatical, I will maintain my library privileges.
• You will follow Ralph Waldo Emerson, Conan O’Brien, Helen Keller, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Yo Yo Ma into the Harvard Alumni Association – with the lifetime promise of dozens, hundreds of mailings from Harvard – each with a return envelope enclosed.
ME: I’ve paid my dues – for this year.
• • • • •
But I claim membership in your class for another, deeper, reasons. For me, the greatest joy of being the president of Harvard has been the opportunity to represent, to teach, to converse with, to work with, and to celebrate the students of Harvard College. Of Harvard students, my memory brims :
• I think of telling your tearful parents that everything was going to work out for the best as I welcomed you to Harvard just 45 months ago.
• I think of learning from you about everything from two-photon microscopy to the Ching dynasty as you told me about your senior theses.
• I think of being there when the women’s ice hockey team won in triple overtime. And of listening to two of you play Mozart – and three more play jazz – at my wedding.
• I think of dancing with a few of you and talking with so many more of you in study breaks in Annenberg or your houses.
• I think of being reminded very forcefully of what I always like to say about Harvard, that is a place based on the authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority, when a student four weeks into my freshman seminar told me that the paper I had written as secretary of the Treasury was, as I quote, “kind of interesting,” but as he told the students in the seminar, “President Summers’ data did not even come close to proving his conclusion.”
• I think of some of the best discussions I have ever had of globalization issues.
• And yes, I did get a kick out of signing for you the ever dwindling supply of dollar bills with my name on them.
This is because I thought then, and I think now, that there is not much anyone can do that is more important than to provide students with minds like yours with an educational experience commensurate with your excellence. For you are remarkably gifted, deeply committed, gifted, and – as history suggests – more likely than any other group of 1,650 22-year-olds to change the world.
But now, talk about what Harvard will do about grade inflation, Allston, or Springfest – or even the Core – is fading in importance for you and for me. You will leave here with your transcripts and honors, with your friends, and with your memories. I want to share with you additional hopes for what you leave here with – a hope for what we on the faculty helped you to develop during your years here. It is something different and broader than knowledge of a field or of a disciplinary approach – something that transcends even the Core’s 11 categories. It is an attitude towards your own minds, and the difference that thought can make.
At one level, what I am about to express are personal convictions of mine – you will sense this, I suspect, in what I say. But I believe what I am going to say expresses the obligation that all of us who have been privileged to study in this Yard should feel.
• • • • •
I hope that more than anything else you leave here with a reverence for, and a personal commitment to, the power of human thought and the positive contribution reason can make.
I speak of a reverence for the power of human thought because our existence is shaped by those ideas that come sometimes as a spark of genius, sometimes as a product of a great debate, sometimes in a moment of serendipity. One of my heroes, John Maynard Keynes, famously wrote of the sphere in which I have lived “The ideas of economists and political philosophers – both when they are right and when they are wrong – are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else.” Keynes went on to warn that persons “who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”
Ideas and their power allow even the poor in our country today to take for granted things that John D. Rockefeller or J.P. Morgan could not have dreamed of – the ability to cross the country in 5 hours, to talk with anyone … anywhere, to enjoy the recreation of watching movies in one’s home in a room with a controlled temperature, the confident expectation that most children will live to be an adult.
The idea of freedom and the genius of the Constitution enable us to take for granted all that we take for granted, that we may say what we think, read what we choose, and sleep secure in the knowledge that agents of our government will not be pounding our doors in the middle of the night.
It is the power of human thought that has given us some of life’s most sublime moments – hearing the music of Beethoven, seeing the paintings of Picasso, pondering the philosophies of Plato, or viewing the dramas of Shakespeare.
To be sure, reverence for human thought no more than reverence for anything else does not mean uncritical appreciation of all its products. Countless millions of people have been sent to their deaths in the name of misguided ideas. History’s tragedies must inspire awe, and sometimes dread, at the power of human thought to wreak misery as well as good.
So yes, a few moments ago I expressed the hope that you would leave here with not just reverence for the power of human thought but I also express the hope that you would leave here with a personal commitment to the idea of reason. For, as a graduate of Harvard, this iconic institution, you represent and stand for the idea of the mind. And you can show that analysis and logic – though fallible, though susceptible to abuse – can, and must, carry the day.
It is an irony of our time that at a moment when the power of reason to cure diseases, link nations, emancipate the enslaved, and improve living standards has never been greater, the idea of reason is increasingly in question. Perhaps the greatest large-scale threat to the lives we all plan to lead over the next decades comes from the threat of faith-based terror – from the threat of destruction carried out with the objective of destroying the commitment to open-minded inquiry, of casting doubt on the idea of society organized on the basis of what its citizens choose. The deliberateness of what we call “deliberative” democracy vests power in all of us to think, to reason, and to choose. When this deliberateness is threatened anywhere, the world grows more dangerous everywhere And the threats to reason can be close to home.
Think about this, at a time when biological science has done more to reduce human suffering and has more potential to reduce human suffering than ever before in all of history. There is today, in American public schools, more doubt cast on the theory of evolution than at any time in the last century. American public policy remains in thrall to those who doubt the reality of man-made global warming – this while global warming is about as debatable as the idea that smoking is bad for your health.
How do we respond to such threats? We respond by insisting that our public choices be reasoned ones, ones informed by the power of data and experience, analysis and logic. We cannot confront enemies – but nor can we effectively heal, or feed, or build, or trade – without penetrating understanding and comprehensive analysis of realms we still find mysterious.
This applies to all of us. For assumptions – even the most well-meaning assumptions – are often inadequate and frequently harmful: the world does not always match what we would like to think, or what current conventional wisdom tells us is true. How, without the deep, counterintuitive, cultural understanding of the kind our country invested in gaining of Japan after the Second World War can we have any hope of making progress in today’s Middle East? How, without a commitment to understanding in the most rigorous and careful way, not only the mechanics of biological transmission and the ethical imperatives of treatment, but also the logistics of local distribution and so much else, will we head off pandemics? Analysis – focused, tough-minded, and searching – will be essential to all our future.
I ask you – if we do not uphold the ideal of reason, who will?
And there are other threats, less urgent, less obvious to the power of reason you will encounter – threats that come from elevating the values of consensus, conformity, and comfort above the value of truth.
Someone I greatly admired, a colleague of mine in the Economics Department, John Kenneth Galbraith, who died a few weeks ago, was the tallest – in many senses – professor Harvard ever had. Galbraith once warned that “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking,” and he commented wryly on another occasion: “In any organization it is far safer to be wrong with the majority than to be right alone.” Galbraith thus urged: “In all life one should comfort the afflicted, but verily, also one should afflict the comfortable especially when they are comfortably, contentedly, even happily wrong.”
I agree with Galbraith that the power of thought to do good is in peril when we imagine that just because people may construe truth differently that truth itself is inaccessible, or that every argument is as good as every other. Indeed when consensus or comity overshadows clarity, when the airing and incorporation of diverse views becomes the end rather than the means, then we set the bar too low.
It is not enough, if we are to make the world better, to sign on to processes that explore all positions but cede the hope of changing anyone’s mind. Ultimately, for effective action, people do have to agree on some things and reject others to find dynamic ways forward. When Galbraith said, “there is something wonderful in seeing a wrong-headed majority assailed by truth” the wonder he meant to celebrate was that of progress.
And so I urge you, you bearers of the power of thought: think, and broadcast your thoughts bravely and listen attentively for the advent of new truths. Stand up for what makes sense, and risk seeming unreasonable now and then. George Bernard Shaw once observed “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Live with the discomfort, sometimes, of having made others squirm, and respect and listen, too, to those who leave you ill at ease. Hawthorne thought this way, too. He said, “the world owes all its onward impulses to men ill at ease.”
Certainly, the awkward have no monopoly on truth, but truth itself – as Galileo, as Plato, as James Joyce, as Philip Roth, all learned – sometimes has an awkward and unpopular way of announcing itself. Its inconvenience should be no bar to entertaining it on the merits. I hope and trust that you have been trained, even driven, here to think outside your comfort zone. Use this experience. Be among the first to recognize the wild originality of the next Joyce, the transformative synthesis of the next Weber, the elegant wonder of the iPod, or, indeed, the power and originality of your own wild surmises.
As individuals, we might not achieve what Newton, or Jefferson, or Beethoven did. But you can, we can, each in our own way, seek to bring the power of our minds to bear to do something, to create something, to influence someone in a way that has never happened before. As creators and implementers of thought, we can make a difference in the world.
I have loved my years as president of Harvard. I hope you have loved your student years here. Now we go forth shaken in some of our convictions, fortified in others, older for sure, wiser we trust. Never before has there been so much ability through new ideas to contribute to the lives of our fellow citizens. Let us strive to be beacons of reason in our lives and in the lives of those we touch. My classmates – Godspeed to us all.