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2010 Baccalaureate Service: “Living an unscripted life”

Memorial Church, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Greetings, Class of 2010. It is a privilege to have these few moments with you before our first May commencement, a new ending to your new beginning. By ancient and curious custom, it falls to me to offer you a final sermon before you go. A last moment of reflection when my wisdom and your wits are supposed to send you shooting off into the future with confidence and purpose and, at long last, a new world of opportunities for hot breakfast. At least, that’s what is in the script. But if you and I have learned anything in our past few years at this remarkable institution, it is that life never follows a script.

And so, Class of 2010, you begin your futures with quite a past.

The day you appeared for freshman registration in 2006, five years to the day after 9/11, the president was declaring us “safer” if “not yet safe;” the Dow was climbing toward its all-time high; and the world was rumbling along, it seemed, toward eternal prosperity. A world in which growing proportions of Harvard seniors were bound for Wall Street or consulting firms; a world of relatively secure jobs and high-paying careers; a world that was your oyster, where you believed that you could wake up the next morning declaring “I will do this,” and chart a certain course for how to get there.

And you hit the ground running. Your accomplishments were legion — or at least you said they were. We’re still working overtime to double-check all your claims before Thursday. You played on the national soccer team, broke school records in the long-distance freestyle, made it onto “Jeopardy!” You wrote and directed a play about freshman life, you rebuilt a Bosnian athletic center, and you collectively suffered what would be your only loss in four seasons of the Harvard-Yale game.

Then came your junior year, and suddenly there was no script. The world had shifted. It was the year of Obama. Who could have anticipated that? It was the year of entropy, with catastrophic floods and fires, an imminent flu pandemic, and the biggest meltdown of world financial systems since the Great Depression. Jobs you had counted on evaporated. Opportunities vanished. Phrases like “bailout” and “too big to fail” were suddenly being applied to companies you had hoped would someday recruit you. And the University was not immune. We didn’t have to melt down the roof of Harvard Hall into bullets — as we did in 1775. But we did curtail plans, and you watched, unsettled, as last year’s seniors felt their way onto a shaky economic landscape they had in no way anticipated.

Now the economy has steadied a bit, and the word “recovery” is in the air, even if we are not confident about its strength or pace. But apocalyptic disasters — volcanoes, earthquakes, and oil spills — seem to have become regular occurrences.

Yet, you have taken it all in stride. You are so calm, one of you quipped in the Crimson, that the alumni had to ask me to create a task force promoting student agitation.

The truth is, we have been your agitators. Think back a moment.

We sent you abroad in increasing numbers, to unfamiliar and even alien places.

We changed our financial aid policies in no small part to confront you with perhaps terrifying choice about your future choice made possible by new freedom from debt.

The dining halls tested your endurance — challenging you with never-ending forms of butternut squash.

FAS changed your curriculum, phasing out the old core and introducing Gen Ed, to explicitly connect what you learn in the classroom to life outside the university. In fact, the introduction to the Report on Gen Ed tells you that, and I’m quoting, “the aim of a liberal education is … to disorient” and then “re-orient” young people, to expose them to “phenomena” — and I quote again — “that exceed their, and even our own, capacity fully to understand.” We seem to have done an exceptional job at this, with a little more outside help than anyone anticipated.

So, what can we take from this heavy dose of disorientation? How has it provided you with a unique and invaluable set of lessons and educational experiences? What might we have learned from these extraordinary recent years that can serve us in times of calm or crisis? What have we learned that is too important to forget?

Let me suggest four particular lessons of the upheavals that I hope you will carry with you.

The first is about humility. In case we didn’t know it before, we have been forcefully reminded that we cannot control or even predict the future or what it will require from us.

Now a place with the word “veritas” emblazoned across the doors may not bring the word “humility” immediately to mind. If Harvard graduates were writing the book on it, someone once said, the title would have to be “Humility and How I Achieved It.” But this past year was humbling for all of us. And humility can be a very effective tonic. Humility, in fact, is what makes learning possible — the sense of ignorance fueling the desire to overcome it.

The unforeseen events of the past two years have forced us to imagine the world differently; they have demanded that we adapt, and throw away the script we thought we were following. And they have reminded us once again of the value of the liberal arts, which are designed to prepare us for life without a script — for a life with any script. Since you cannot know what you need to be ready for, we have tried to get you ready for anything.

The second lesson: Embrace risk — it is inevitable. You worry, I know, about the burden of Harvard, about “the pressure to be extraordinary,” within a narrow definition of success, as one of you told me. You feel the urgency, as one ex-Wall Street alumnus put it recently, of “check[ing] the job box.” He admitted that for him the job was less about the money or the nature of the work than, as he said, “about squelching anxiety in general.” You wonder, “What will I say at my 5th reunion?” What is “extraordinary enough?” But as I told last year’s seniors, the financial crisis allowed you to have your midlife crisis in advance. This may not seem like a gift now, but it is. What is “extraordinary enough” is simply having the courage to write your own script. You can be a risk taker. In fact, as we have learned, you will be a risk taker whatever you choose because no choice is guaranteed to be safe; no path is risk free. So do what you love, whether it is law or drama, or finance or physics, or, as one of you told me during Arts First, heading off to Los Angeles to play Delta blues guitar. Life is long. Don’t settle for plan B until you have tried plan A.

This is the parking space theory of life, which I have been sharing with students for years. Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because you think you’ll never find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be.

The third lesson: The world really needs you. Bill Gates reminded us of this when he visited a couple of weeks ago. We must, he said, put the world’s best minds to work on the world’s biggest problems. But you knew that already. You have developed a deep sense of obligation.

Nearly 20 percent of you applied for Teach for America, far more than at our peer institutions, and the largest percentage of any school class in the history of the organization. I am very proud of that. You have taken up causes, from teaching dance in the Cambridge Public Schools to rebuilding churches in Georgia during spring break, to fighting AIDS in Botswana. And this civic engagement has bonded you to each other and to others beyond Harvard in ways we could not have planned for you, in moments you could not have invented. Who could forget some of these moments:

A historic presidential election that had you energized en masse, canvassing neighborhoods, debating the issues, and on election night pouring onto the streets of Harvard Square until long past midnight, knowing that whatever candidate you had supported, America was irrevocably changed.

Another moment: the crisis of climate change that brought us together in Tercentenary Theatre on that freezing day in October 2008, to affirm our commitment to preserve the planet for future generations. I think we served squash there, too.

An earthquake in Haiti that galvanized you to raise an enormous sum for Partners In Health with an evening of performances at Sanders Theatre.

You are choosing careers and lives that reflect an outlook and an urgency derived in no small part from what has happened in the world since you arrived in Cambridge less than four years ago. The crises you have witnessed have imparted an enhanced sense of both opportunity and responsibility.

And the fourth lesson: Living in a world without a script demands and rewards creativity. You need to be the authors, the entrepreneurs, of your own lives. And this part I don’t have to tell you either. You are already doing it.

One of you has quite literally written a script — for a senior thesis film that has just been selected for screening at Cannes.

But you have written those scripts more figuratively as well, acting to shape your lives and the world in which you will live.

You started NGOs like the one that has built a school for girls in Afghanistan.

You developed vertical planters with the help of slum residents in Nairobi as you studied technology in the developing world.

You invented Rover, a platform for mobile devices that connects students to their local community, a sort of social-networking GPS.

You turned an engineering class assignment into a soccer ball that can store energy and convert a playground ballgame into a power source for people in developing nations.

You learned Twi, went to Ghana, and created a sustainable water-supply system for a rural community.

These projects won awards and financial support for their ingenuity. And most of them were accomplished in teams, by several of you working together with people in places far removed from Harvard. As one of you noted, you got to “see,” and I’m quoting, “how … cultural prescriptions of the communities … challenged … what you learn in the classroom.”

Columnist David Brooks wrote recently of a process he called “leading with two minds” — the balanced influence of people who can be, as he put it, “practitioners one month and then academic observers of themselves the next.” Duke Ellington allegedly called it having one ear in the conservatory and one ear on the street. As English Professor Luke Menand has observed, the “ability to create knowledge and put it to use is the adaptive characteristic of humans.” “It is … how we change — how we keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds.”

If any class knows how to do this, it is yours. It is what the world’s crises, and your liberal arts education, have trained you to do. Keep asking the big, irrelevant questions; keep thinking beyond the present. Then live what you have learned.

In 1966, Robert F. Kennedy, Harvard College Class of 1948, addressed a gathering of South African students struggling to end apartheid. “Like it or not,” he told them, “we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty; but they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.” This message is just as forceful and meaningful here, today, as it was in South Africa nearly a half century ago — though now he would say women and men, I’m sure. That particular script, that time of uncertainty, had an inspiring ending; apartheid was destroyed. Now you have your own uncertainties and dangers and your own scripts to write. The world has never needed you more. And we send you into that world with our confidence — our confidence in your commitment and our confidence in your abilities to create a script from the unexpected for which you are so well prepared.

– Drew Gilpin Faust

359th Harvard Commencement »