Each September I join you on the first day of classes to greet the new year, to acknowledge a new season, a time—borrowing from the passage from Ecclesiastes that Reverend Walton just read—to renew our purposes under heaven. In this annual ritual, I come to you to mark change—a change we feel in the weather and the light around us as we welcome the pellucid days of New England autumn, change we at once embrace and regret as we abandon the less hurried pace of summer for renewed dedication to the work ahead in a new season of teaching and learning.
Universities are among the oldest institutions in the world. And Harvard is, of course, the oldest such institution in North America. We are devoted observers of tradition, one example of which we are carrying out here today. But universities are also, paradoxically, about change.
Our populations shift rapidly and dramatically. We already miss the more than 7,000 graduates who departed last spring, but we are exhilarated by the arrival of their successors—like those I had the pleasure to greet last week as they drove into Harvard Yard with their cars overflowing and their hearts and minds filled with excitement and fear and anticipation. In our educational mission, as well, we embrace the notion and the reality of change—transforming minds, transforming ideas, transforming individuals. We are a research university, and research is about the discovery of the new.
In the past few days I’ve been thinking a lot about Seamus Heaney, who as you know died last Friday. And I have been hearing in my head words from the poem he composed in celebration of Harvard’s 350th anniversary, and then read again at Commencement a year ago in May in honor of our 375th. Heaney urged us to honor our past by looking to our future. “Begin again,” he wrote. Today we follow Seamus Heaney’s injunction literally. But we in a deeper sense do that every day as we add to knowledge. We want to ensure that the world is just a little bit different for each of us each evening, because at the end of every day we want to know more and understand more. We seek constantly, as is inscribed above Dexter Gate in the Yard, to “grow in wisdom.” As an institution, as well as individuals, we must grapple with changes of time and of season. And I believe that universities now confront especially significant seasons of change ahead, in a world being fundamentally altered by new technologies, new global realities and new popular pressures and expectations.
Change is not easy. That seems to me at the heart of the message of Ecclesiastes 3. It confronts us with contradictions, juxtaposes gain and loss. The very rhythm of the passage¬—(and I am sure many of you hear not just the rhythm of the biblical language but also the rhythm of Pete Seeger’s song echoing in your heads)—this rhythm reminds us that loss is embedded in gain and in some sense subsumed by gain. It reminds us that change encompasses continuity even as it transcends it. In the words of Ecclesiastes 3: “That which hath been is now and that which is to be hath already been.”
Heraclitus long ago noted that the only constant is change. He would have understood Ecclesiastes 3 very well.
But an observation attributed to Confucius may offer us even greater insight. “They must change,” he said, “who would be constant in happiness and wisdom.”
As we enter upon this new year at Harvard, let us welcome the rhythm of change. But in doing so, let us sustain the aspects of our past that define us and that matter most. As we move through this era of transformation, let us remember too that different times and different seasons require us to do our work in different ways.
It is in fact in welcoming and shaping change that we are best able to ensure that what matters most survives and thrives even as so much shifts and turns.
And may the change of the season that is upon us, and may this new year of knowledge, discoveries, new friendships and renewed community indeed be filled with wisdom and happiness.
Let us begin again.