2016 Commencement Speech
Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Greetings alumni, graduates, families, and friends. It is such a pleasure to see you all here and offer congratulations on this day of celebration. I am in the unenviable role of warm-up act for one of the greatest storytellers of our—or any other—time. Nevertheless, my assignment is to offer a few reflections on this magnificent institution at this moment in its history. And what a moment it is.
From comments of astonished pundits on television, in print, and online, to conversations with bewildered friends and colleagues, the question seems unavoidable—and mesmerizing: What is going on? What is happening to the world? The tumultuous state of American politics, spotlighted in this contentious presidential contest; the political challenges around the globe from Brazil to Brexit; the Middle East in flames; a refugee crisis in Europe; terrorists exploiting new media to perform chilling acts of brutality and murder; climate-related famine in Africa and fires in Canada. It is as if we are being visited by the horsemen of the apocalypse with war, famine, natural disaster—and, yes, even pestilence—as Zika spreads, aided by political controversy and paralysis.
As extraordinary as these times may seem to us, Harvard reminds us we have been here before. It is in some ways reassuring at this 365th Commencement to recall all that Harvard has endured over centuries. A number of these festival rites took place under clouds of war; others in times of financial crisis and despair; still others in face of epidemics—from smallpox in the 17th century to the devastating flu of 1918 to the H1N1 virus just a few years ago. Harvard has not just survived these challenges, but has helped to confront them. We sing in our alma mater about “Calm rising through change and through storm.” What does that mean for today’s crises? Where do universities fit in this threatening mix? What can we do? What should we do? What must we do?
We are gathered today in Tercentenary Theatre, with Widener Library and Memorial Church standing before and behind us, enduring symbols of Harvard’s larger identity and purposes, testaments to what universities do and believe at a time when we have never needed them more. And much is at stake, for us and for the world.
We look at Widener Library and see a great edifice, a backdrop of giant columns where photos are taken and 27 steps are worn down ever so slightly by the feet of a century of students and scholars. We also see a repository of learning, with 57 miles of shelving at the heart of a library system of some 17 million books, a monument to reason and knowledge, to the collection and preservation of the widest possible range of beliefs, and experiences, and facts that fuel free inquiry and our constantly evolving understanding. A vehicle for Veritas—for exploring the path to truth wherever it may lead. A tribute to the belief that knowledge matters, that facts matter—in the present moment, as a basis for the informed decisions of individuals, societies, and nations; and for the future, as the basis for new insight. As James Madison wrote in 1822, a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives. Or as early 20th-century civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs put it, “education is democracy’s life insurance.”
Evidence, reason, facts, logic, an understanding of history and of science. The ability to know, as former dean Jeremy Knowles used to put it, “when someone is talking rot.” These are the bedrock of education, and of an informed citizenry with the capacity to lead, to explore, to invent. Yet this commitment to reason and truth—to their pursuit and preeminence—seems increasingly a minority viewpoint. In a recent column, George Will deplored the nation’s evident abandonment of what he called “the reality principle—the need to assess and adapt to facts.” Universities are defined by this principle. We produce a ready stream of evidence and insights, many with potential to create a better world.
So what are our obligations when we see our fundamental purpose under siege, our reason for being discounted and undermined? First we must maintain an unwavering dedication to rigorous assessment and debate within our own walls. We must be unassailable in our insistence that ideas most fully thrive and grow when they are open to challenge. Truth cannot simply be claimed; it must be established—even when that process is uncomfortable. Universities do not just store facts; they teach us how to evaluate, test, challenge, and refine them. Only if we ourselves model a commitment to fact over what Stephen Colbert so memorably labeled as “truthiness” (and he also actually sometimes called it “Veritasiness!”), only then can we credibly call for adherence to such standards in public life and a wider world.
We must model this commitment for our students, as we educate them to embrace these principles—in their work here and in the lives they will lead as citizens and leaders of national and international life. We must support and sustain fact and reason beyond our walls as well. And we must do still more.
Facing Widener stands Memorial Church. Built in the aftermath of World War I, it was intended to honor and memorialize responsibility—not just the quality of men and women’s thoughts, but, as my predecessor James Conant put it, “the radiance of their deeds.” The more than 1,100 Harvard and Radcliffe students, faculty, and alumni whose names are engraved on its walls gave their lives in service to their country, because they believed that some things had greater value than their own individual lives. I juxtapose Widener Library and Memorial Church today because we need the qualities that both represent, because I believe that reason and knowledge must be inflected with values, and that those of us who are privileged to be part of this community of learning bear consequent responsibilities.
Now, it may surprise some of you to hear that this is not an uncontroversial assertion. For this morning’s ceremony I wore the traditional Harvard presidential robe—styled on the garment of a Puritan minister and reminding us of Harvard’s origins. Values were an integral part of the defining purpose of the early years of Harvard College, created to educate a learned ministry. Up until the end of the 1800s, most American college presidents taught a course on moral philosophy to graduating students. But with the rise of the research university in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, moral and ethical purposes came to be seen as at odds with the scientific thinking transforming higher education.
But in today’s world, I believe it is dangerous for universities not to fully acknowledge and embrace their responsibilities to values and to service as well as to reason and discovery. There is no value-free science. There is no algorithm that writes itself. The questions we choose to ask and the research we decide to support; the standards of integrity we expect of our colleagues and students; the community we build and the model we offer: All of this is central to who we are.
We can see these values clearly in the choices and passions of our faculty and students: in the motto of Harvard Business School, which you heard earlier this morning uttered by the dean, the commitment to make “a difference in the world.” Most of the University would readily embrace this sentiment. In the enthusiasm of students and faculty, we see it as well. From across the University—graduate, professional, and hundreds of undergraduates—we see a remarkable enthusiasm, for example for the field of global health because it unites the power of knowledge and science with a deeply-felt desire to do good in the world—to lead lives of meaning and purpose. This spirit animates not just global health but so much of all we do. Harvard is and must be a community of idealists. And today we send thousands of you—doctors, lawyers, teachers, artists, philosophers, business people, epidemiologists, public servants—into the world.
For our youngest students, those just beginning to shape their adult lives, lives who today received what the ritual language of Commencement calls “their first degree,” for them these questions of values and responsibility take on particular salience. Harvard College is a residential community of learning with a goal, in the words of its dean, of personal and social as well as intellectual transformation. Bringing students of diverse backgrounds to live together and learn from one another enacts that commitment, as we work to transform diversity into belonging. In a world divided by difference, we at Harvard strive to be united by it. In myriad ways we challenge our students to be individuals of character as well as of learning. We seek to establish standards for the College community that advance our institutional purposes and values. We seek to educate people, not just minds; our highest aspiration is not just knowledge, but wisdom.
Reason and responsibility. Widener and Memorial Church. Harvard and the world. We have a very special obligation in a very difficult time. May we and the students we send forth today embrace it.