Convocation Address to the Class of 2023
Good afternoon, Class of 2023. I had the opportunity to meet some of you last week while schlepping boxes to your new homes in Harvard Yard, but it is a pleasure to see all of you gathered in one place—
and an honor to welcome you officially as members of the Harvard community.
We’ll undoubtedly cross paths with one another over the next few years, and I hope each of you will feel free to call me Larry. My wife, Adele, is with me more often than not—Adele, are you out there?—and she’s also very excited to get to know you and to hear about your College experience.
Like almost all of you, Adele and I are not from around here. She grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, and went to Wellesley. I was born and raised in Pontiac, Michigan, and went to MIT. In fact, this fall marks the 50th anniversary of my arrival in Cambridge. That’s right—50 years.
Trust me when I tell you that these first few days will persist in your memory for at least half a century. I still remember driving up to the MIT campus just down the road from here for the very first time with my parents and seeing a big protest going on at 77 Mass Ave.
Remember, this was at the height of the Vietnam War. The police were there in riot gear. There were a bunch of students with bullhorns, and there was a lot of chanting going on. My father, observing the situation, turned to me and said, "If you get arrested, don't call home."
That’s one of my earliest memories of this extraordinary city. It was 1969. Richard Nixon had been president for less than a year. Stonewall had become the flash point of the gay rights movement. The Apollo 11 mission had just put men on the surface of the moon. And some of the best musicians on Earth had just made Woodstock famous.
Computers were only found in big office buildings and labs, never in a home, and ARPANET—a US Department of Defense project that would become the foundation of the internet—was brand new. Most people were completely oblivious to everything those advances might make possible— from Bill Gates’ Microsoft to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.
Every app you’ve used today was, at best, a twinkle in the eye of a futurist.
I could spend the entire afternoon describing all that has changed since I was sitting in a seat not unlike the one in which you sit right now. I could tell you about the art and music that defined my experience as a freshman. I could bemoan the loss of familiar haunts in Kendall and Central and Harvard Square. I could describe my ridiculous clothing from that era— though I’ll admit this puritanical getup is giving some of my best looks a run for their money.
Instead, I want to share with you some wisdom that can only be gained in hindsight—wisdom that will help you navigate your first year at Harvard. Time reveals what is essential. The land line will soon drift from human memory, as will ham radios, smudgy newsprint, and television antennas. But the desire for information and connection is as strong as it has ever been. The people sitting next to you right now want to know about you, want to understand who you are and where you came from—and how those two things are sometimes in harmony and sometimes in conflict.
We can teach you much in a classroom about the human condition, but there are some lessons that can only be learned through honest conversations with your classmates.
One of the reasons we chose each of you is because we believe that the life you have lived up to this point offers a special kind of education to the people around you. I hope you will have the courage to share your experiences and to learn from one another.
That’s not to say you don’t have things in common. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed in these first few weeks and months, know that you are not alone among your peers—or among your proctors, your professors, or even your president. Every person you meet at Harvard has been awestruck by this place and its history at some point; every person has felt out of place in one situation or another; every person has thought twice about her or his worthiness. Embracing the fact that you belong here is easier said than done, but the sooner you get out of your own way the sooner you will be able to take full advantage of all that Harvard has to offer. On any given day, you will have more opportunities to learn than most people get in a month or a year or a lifetime.
It’s not necessary for you to do everything—and downtime is important for all of us—but it is necessary for you to recognize that the next four years will be unmatched by any others in terms of the ease with which you can discover new interests and try new things. Being out of one’s element can be liberating and thrilling, and you may find yourself rethinking what you thought you knew about yourself. Much of college is a journey of self- discovery.
If you meet someone who appears to have everything figured out, be skeptical. Anyone who is thinking of the next four years as a series of stepping stones to a predetermined outcome—be it an award, a concentration, a job, a specific career, or anything else—is a person who will miss the point of this place. Harvard is where the unknown becomes known. The most interesting seniors I met last year were open to the possibility that they were here to learn about themselves at least as much as they were here to learn about their chosen field or discipline. They took time to explore this tremendous campus, to become familiar with our neighbors in Cambridge and Allston, to venture into Boston and beyond. You are now living in one of the finest metropolitan areas in the United States—get on the T and see every inch of it.
The more you learn—and the more you see—the more you will notice what needs changing. Harvard is not perfect. Massachusetts is not perfect. America is not perfect—and neither is the world in which we live. No one I know—liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, or anyone in between—would argue with that statement. It is necessary for all of us to stand up and speak out for the causes in which we believe. And I choose my words intentionally. Standing up and speaking out are actions. They are often most difficult when they are most worthwhile, and you will not regret the time you spend articulating your argument and agitating for change over the next four years.
You’ll learn as you undertake that work that not everyone agrees with you, and not everyone shares your view or your values. The easiest way out of those situations—and the easiest way around those people—is to ignore them. And that is, of course, something you are free to do. But I hope you won’t. The Harvard you know exists because its people have had the courage to confront the toughest issues of their day generation after generation. We honor this institution by advocating, by arguing, and—yes— by listening carefully and generously. None of us has a monopoly on virtue.
Changing one’s mind in the face of new information or a better argument is a sign of intellectual maturity. It is also the best of our traditions, and you inherit it today.
So, Godspeed to you, members of the Class of 2023. One morning, you will wake to find this moment fifty years in the rearview mirror. My hope for you is that the intervening decades are filled with friendship and love, and a lifetime of purpose—that the arc of your achievements carries you toward joy—and that the meaning of your life becomes clear to you. In the meantime, give to this wonderful place at least as much as you expect to get out of it. Fight for it—and for your country—and for the world—because they are yours. Change them for the better for yourselves, for all of us.