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2011 Baccalaureate Service: “A Syncopated Life”

Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered

Greetings, Class of 2011.

As we gather this afternoon for the ancient and curious custom of the Baccalaureate, you might recall, as I do, that overcast September day nearly four years ago when the rain drove us inside Sanders Theatre, and you and I began our journeys at Harvard together, wondering what was in store. I took a chance, and told you that you had nothing to worry about. Little did I know that you are a force of nature that would pen a bestselling parody, win two Marshalls and three Rhodes scholarships, and turn the Harvard-Yale game into a four-year fait accompli. Now I am afraid to go to the game without you. You may be similarly startled to find yourselves in Memorial Church on a Tuesday afternoon, past the thesis deadlines when prayer might have been useful, preparing now for a new journey that may or may not restore your right to a hot breakfast.

In your time at Harvard, you have been resourceful as well as original. I told you to take risks and try new things, and I mentioned that you might need a map, a whistle, and a compass. As it turned out, you brought your own props. You ran the Boston Marathon dressed as a hamburger, and you pedaled 100 miles on a unicycle to support education for the underserved.

You surprised even yourselves in the service of others, from the smallest gestures to the largest problems. You taught a Cape Town soccer camp about HIV/AIDS, started a clinic for malnourished children in Mali, and this year a remarkable 18 percent of you applied to Teach For America.

You became more worldly, as we moved from the Core to Gen. Ed., as Rockefeller grants expanded your experiences abroad, and language studies boomed.

You can think in Chinese, talking with an Inner Mongolian who got electricity three years ago, and whose children at university now have futures that are intertwined with yours; you speak Igbo with your Nigerian grandparents, connecting you to your past; and you exchange phrases you have picked up in 10 or 12 languages from your friends and your roommates.

You re-invented yourselves:

One of you left for Guatemala as an aspiring comedy writer and returned as a labor activist; another switched from being a social anthropologist to a poet bound for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and a third discovered, in your heightened curiosity and your new ways of asking questions, that you and your twin back in Texas have become, as you put it, “totally different people.”

You came together in unexpected ways.

Who could forget that freezing October day in Tercentenary Theatre when we pledged in a crowd 10,000 strong to preserve the planet for future generations? You have already helped Harvard reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 10 percent.

Or who could forget the presidential election, when you canvassed and debated for many candidates up until the night when America elected its first African-American president, and you filled the streets of Harvard Square knowing that the nation was irrevocably changed?

Or who could forget that final second of March Madness when our basketball team carried us so very agonizingly close to the NCAAs?

I told you that September day four years ago that your time at Harvard would disorient you, unsettle your assumptions. I promised your parents that we would give them back a different son or daughter from the one they dropped off at the dorm. I am glad to say you have made me look wiser than I felt.

And Harvard cannot take all the credit, though we tried our best to disrupt you. The world provided a full measure of calamity: revolutions, earthquakes, oil spills, Ponzi schemes, threatened pandemics, and the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

So of course, I could not really reassure you that day in Sanders. These past four years have done just that. You have learned for yourselves that you were not an admissions office error, soon to be pegged a mistake. You discovered passions you could not have imagined. You realized in this diverse and distinctive class just how difficult it is to “peg” anyone, especially yourself.

You are what Reverend Peter Gomes might have called, and I quote him, “an illustration in search of a sermon.” As I thought about what I might say to you today, it occurred to me that this was an apt, and meaningful, description of Peter Gomes himself. For the first time in four decades, we must go without his Baccalaureate blessing. And I think it’s kind of wonderful that we don’t seem to be able to find our way here, and know when to stand up or sit down. It seems highly appropriate. We miss his leadership and his inimitable voice. Yet he remains at the center of what it means to be a part of Harvard, a moral tradition and force in the legacy of “veritas” that is not just a succession of truths, but a compass. I am struck by how often you ask about values — about what is fair and proper leadership. In fact, universities once assumed that goodness and the search for truth were indivisible, and this assumption animated everything Peter Gomes did. Remain mindful of others, but decide for yourself. Be who you are, or at least be discovering who you are, and not what others think you should be. As Governor Deval Patrick said at Peter Gomes’ memorial service last month, Peter “refus[ed] to be put in anybody else’s box.”

Like many things at this university, Peter Gomes was larger than life, beyond telling. Yet within that enormous presence — witty, theatrical, wise — he confounded categorization because he occupied so many categories. Your generation is more accustomed to this. On the 2010 U.S. Census, those who checked two or more boxes to indicate their “race” were the fastest-growing youth demographic. As a man of multiple labels, Peter Gomes was ahead of his time. A Republican professor at Harvard, a gay Baptist preacher, a black Pilgrim Society president from Plymouth. He often described himself as “Afro-Saxon.” Even if you never came to a Sunday service, or took his course on the history of Harvard, you could feel across campus the ripple of his singularity.

After coming out publicly, in 1992, he gave a Commencement speech to an anxious audience at Princeton Theological Seminary, and, as a man of words, he let no one finish his sentences for him. He said, “I know that my being here today is the cause of no small consternation for some of you. After all, I am … black … and I am … Baptist … and I am … from Harvard!” Playful. Unapologetic. Unbounded by others’ expectations.

We might call it the preacher’s punch line — what one of you on the Lampoon staff called “breaking format …to subvert the assumptions of your audience.” It’s the tension and release of American music, what Wynton Marsalis described to us in Sanders Theatre last month as the art of syncopation. We love laws, tradition, structure, blueprints, the stability of the two-beat rhythm that is as old as walking, and then, as Marsalis put it, “We catch fire.” He continued: “We play around with the two-beat groove by accenting off of the beat and coming back to it at an unexpected time … like offering something to someone, and snatching it suddenly back.

“It is … the masterful challenging of convention,” he continued, “the element of surprise that makes a punch line funny … the daring application of dexterity, jocularity, and timing to challenge the grid, the common ground, or the accepted way.”

And so, on Thursday, as you pass through the gates into the ancient company of educated men and women, you face an important question. Not, Will I get a job? Will I succeed? Will I satisfy everyone else’s expectations? — though these worries are real. But the real question is: How, within the possible narratives, can I most be myself? How will I finish my own sentence, when I say “I went to Harvard, and then I ….”

Four years ago, many of the seniors longed to try their own endings, but they felt trapped by expectations. One member of the Class of 2008 told me, before the crash, that heading off to Wall Street was a default mode: what he called “check[ing] the job box,” a “choice, as he put it, for those who see real choice as too risky.” Since the financial crisis shifted those choices, you enter the world, in a strange sense, liberated. As I told the last two classes of graduating seniors, uncertainty and change are exactly what a liberal arts education has prepared you for. You may resist taking risks as the economy shows signs of recovery. Still, do what you love. Try Plan A before you settle for Plan B.

This is what I call the parking space theory of life, and I have shared it with students for years. Don’t park six blocks away from your destination because you are afraid you won’t find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be. You can discover, sometimes improbably, a new version of who you are.

Take, for example, the wide receiver who comes off the football field from defeating Yale to find waiting on the sidelines a six-word text message: “Congratulations, you are a Rhodes Scholar.”

Or think of the dancer who’s going into cancer research, because you find both to be what you call “ways of exploring new possibilities.”

Or how about the explorer of Sanskrit, probability theory, and political philosophy, now turned entrepreneur — uncertain of success as you start your own company, but, as you put it, yearning “to write [your] own story,” like Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, “who roams the oceans in a submarine of his own design.”

Or how about a Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard who on your own graduation day, as part of a long and continuing story, will accept a posthumous diploma for Joel Iacoomes, a member of your tribe who attended Harvard 346 years ago.

You are already finishing your own sentences, and who could have imagined a single one of them?

The original mission of Harvard was to inculcate goodness. As I have said before, “veritas” was not value-neutral. It came with ethical underpinning, designed to help you ask the questions “What do I truly value? How do I want to live my life?” The world you face is daunting, and it is uncertain. Charting a course is hard. But you are well prepared — with the analytic spirit, the capacity for questioning and for judgment, and the habits of mind your education has given you these past four years.

Philosopher William James drew an important distinction at a Harvard Commencement dinner a century ago. He said there is an “outer Harvard,” a “more educated cleverness in the service of popular idols.” But, he continued to say, there is also an “inner spiritual Harvard,” carried by those who come not because the University is a club, but, as he put it, “because they have heard of her persistently atomistic constitution, of her tolerance of exceptionality and eccentricity, of her devotion to the principles of individual vocation and choice …. You cannot,” he said, “make single, one-idea-ed regiments of her classes….” This is just as meaningful in 2011 as it was in 1903.

So go, and live syncopated lives. Keep us apprised. Be true to Harvard by being true to yourselves. Search for your own sermons. Finish your own sentences. And then rewrite them, again and again.

Thank you and good luck.

– Drew Gilpin Faust