I join you, as I have each fall, to welcome the new year, and today we welcome a special year. Harvard will observe its 375th birthday. On October 28, 1636, the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a legislative act founding Harvard College. But Harvard wasn’t actually Harvard yet. It would be another two years before a colonist named John Harvard died of tuberculosis and left half his wealth and all his library – some 400 books – to the colony’s new college. And it was about that same time – 1638 – that a first freshman class gathered to undertake its first recitations.
This delay in getting under way makes it no less remarkable that education represented such an early and fundamental commitment for settlers who had arrived on New England’s shores only a few years before. They had barely established themselves and their livelihoods in what John Winthrop called their “errand into the wilderness” when they determined to identify themselves with learning and scholarship. Harvard was the first college in the English colonies, the oldest in what has become the United States. We have a singular and distinguished history, and this year – in a variety of ways – from birthday cake in October through Commencement in May – we will celebrate it.
But what does it mean to have a history? Why do we see it as an essential part of our identity? How and why is our history about the future as well as the past? Let me in the few minutes I have with you today begin to suggest why Harvard’s past matters and why it is an invaluable resource as we contemplate the years that will lead us towards the culmination of our fourth century.
At Harvard, we live in a community made up not just of the students, faculty and staff now here – or even the more than 300,000 Harvard alumni around the globe. We have an indelible connection as well to all those who have come before, predecessors both remote and recent who remind us of what is possible for us by their demonstration of what was possible for them. Lives at the highest levels of public service: from John and John Quincy Adams to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy to George W. Bush to Barack Obama. Lives of creativity: from Henry David Thoreau to Leonard Bernstein to John Updike, Margaret Atwood and Adrienne Rich. Lives dedicated to serving equality and human rights: Charles Sumner, W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen Keller. Lives of intellectual discovery: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, John Rawls and some 50 Harvard Nobel winners. And lives sacrificed for the nation, remembered on the walls here in Memorial Church and in Memorial Hall. This is a history that nurtures aspiration, that inspires us with what is possible and reminds us what is necessary – the responsibility that accompanies education and opportunity, the privilege to contribute to purposes larger than ourselves.
Having a history aids us as well in diminishing the stranglehold of the present, compelling us to imagine beyond its bounds, to take the long view. I have spoken before of the university as an institution “uniquely accountable to the past and to the future,” offering “a depth and breadth of vision we cannot find in the inevitably myopic present.” Our history can give us a sense of perspective, the confidence of continuity. Harvard has weathered epidemics, fires, wars, depressions. We have not just survived but thrived, propelled forward by an unwavering commitment to the importance of learning and knowledge, to values that endure in their dedication to human potential – in the 21st century as in the 17th.
But history teaches us about change as well as continuity. It enables us to see contingency and opportunity. It offers us the foundation for imagining a different world and understanding what it takes to build it. To have a history is to have a context – for both insight and action. It is to know that we and those who have preceded us have been dedicated to using knowledge to invent a future. The future, Yogi Berra is said to have observed, isn’t what it used to be. That is because we are living in a future our predecessors in this remarkable institution worked to create for us. History is where the future begins.