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2017 Baccalaureate Service: “The Art of Noticing”

Memorial Church, Cambridge, Mass.

Greetings, Harvard College Class of 2017.

What a privilege it is to pause with you for a moment, during this frenzy of Commencement week, as you prepare to join the company of educated persons. I can imagine you are wondering to what we owe this strange honor — just us, together one last time for the curious medieval custom called the Baccalaureate in a time of celebration more suited for bacchanalia. Yet here we are, you in pews and I in a pulpit where I am to impart the sober wisdom of age to the semi-sober enthusiasm of youth. It’s a daunting task. Almost as daunting as suggesting — and now I quote from the Final Report of the Implementation Committee for the Policy on Membership in Single-Gender Social Organizations — that you “eat in elegant attire [and] read Chaucer out loud … [at] inter-House dining societies.”

You may remember when we gathered here for the first time at your Freshman Convocation, driven indoors by the threat of rain, some of you in Sanders Theatre connected by simulcast, others here in Memorial Church, fanning yourselves with your programs in the sweltering September air, listening to a lineup of elders in long dark robes. Dean Smith told you “Don’t compare; connect,” and I told you to “be comfortable with being uncomfortable” — a message Memorial Church has clearly undermined by adding air conditioning in the meantime. We are making history right now: Harvard’s first air-conditioned Baccalaureate in its 381 years.

You had arrived from 60 countries and 49 states in spite of what was an unusual confluence of calamities: four years ago the Boston Marathon Bombing cancelled your Visitas weekend, as you connected online or at Logan Terminal E as terror gripped Cambridge and Boston.

You enrolled anyway and made Harvard your own, even as in your first December a bomb threat postponed many of your exams. You learned botanical factoids in your regular missives from Dean Pfister and confronted another dimension of nature your sophomore year as you made your way across campus in a winter with a record-breaking nine-plus feet of snow. You sledded down the steps of Widener, you cross-country skied to class, and you expanded your vocabulary to include new words for snow — Snowmageddon, Snowpocalypse, SnowMG.

As juniors, you revived old traditions, like the mumps; and inaugurated new ones, as the first to concentrate in Theater, Dance & Media, first to serve on the Honor Council for academic integrity, and first to call the newly renovated Dunster House home.

And as seniors, you experienced the first Harvard workers’ strike in 30 years — 22 days of Insomnia Cookies and LamCaf coffee as some of you embraced the workers’ cause, taking food to them. And after all that tumult came this past year’s presidential election.

You have stood up and stood out.

You started an annual “Saturday Night Live”-style comedy show called “SKETCH,” co-founded the Harvard College Conservation Society and an LGBTQ organization for people of color. You created a free College admissions guide for underserved students. You walked out of class to affirm that Black Lives Matter; you rallied against sexual assault; you blockaded Mass Hall in support of fossil fuel divestment; you gathered to protest the implications of the SGSO policy for women’s organizations. You marched for science on Boston Common and you went to jail for immigrant rights.

You won honors for theses on topics from the cultural history of malt liquor to the cataloging of distant star clusters to a rap album based on Chaucer that made national news.

You discussed black holes with Stephen Hawking and black ballerinas with Misty Copeland, explored statecraft with Hillary Clinton, and won Rhodes Scholarships to study how doctors and patients communicate and to study the history of Jews among Muslims.

In your senior year, you cheered on the basketball team as it took the floor in China. You helped capture 12 Ivy League Championships but shared the agony of losing The Game to Yale for the first time in 10 years, even as Winthrop House sustained its undefeated run by taking the Straus Cup for the third time in a row. And then you led men’s hockey to the NCAA Frozen Four and our first Beanpot victory in 24 years!

You marked many of these milestones with Snaps and Tweets and posts to Insta. The value of being noticed, especially on social media, has been a powerful force in your lives. At the same time, many of you have told me how the constant expectation of doing something notable makes you question the meaning of success. “Being noticed can be a burden,” Bob Dylan once said — even, apparently, when you win the Nobel Prize. That is why I want to take the next few minutes to talk to you, not about being noticed — something you are already very good at — but about the value of noticing, which may be less familiar.

Noticing is in fact at the heart of what we have endeavored to nurture in you these last four years; it is at the heart of a liberal arts education. Noticing — not just passively seeing, but actively looking — is connecting your mind and awareness to something beyond yourself and often beyond your existing knowledge and assumptions. Noticing is the pathway out of the echo chamber of your own mind.

Perhaps some of you took Professor Jennifer Roberts’ course “The Art of Looking,” where students stand in front of one painting for three hours and note their evolving observations. “Just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it,” says Professor Roberts. And it turns out that looking can be liberating, and humbling. It gives us permission not to be seen but to see, not to be heard but to listen. It calls our attention to things we take for granted, things that lead us to ask, as Professor Roberts says, “how [things] got to be the way they are.”

Professor Hopi Hoekstra of the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology gives a similar assignment. “Science starts with observation,” she explains as she sends her students out for three hours of watching squirrels. Professor Max Bazerman of the Kennedy and Business Schools has written a book about noticing and leadership and even offers a Wintersession course called “Noticing — A Leadership Challenge.” It explores, he writes on the syllabus, the dangerous human capacity “not to notice across many domains.” It is designed to help students avoid “noticing failures.” We humans are highly susceptible to these cognitive blind spots, these “noticing malfunctions.” It is an important goal of education to combat them.

“The range of what we think and do,” psychiatrist R.D. Laing once observed, “is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.” My graduation wish for you is that we will have succeeded in making you noticers, that your ability to identify noticing malfunctions, your capacity, in Laing’s words to “notice … failing to notice” will enable you to be genuine seekers of truth no matter what direction your lives may take you.

Now, the “discipline of looking” is not easy, partly because we are hardwired to notice some things and not others. We tend not to see our own prejudices, for one thing — what Professor Mahzarin Banaji calls “implicit bias.” We believe that we assess others fairly and accurately. Yet all of us have absorbed attitudes that often contradict the values we profess. This is why self-awareness matters, the conscious effort to notice our own assumptions, especially in a diverse community. Part of what we have asked you to do here is to notice each other — to explore and learn from your similarities and differences across religions, races, ethnicities, political viewpoints, nationalities, sexual orientations, and gender identities. One of the dictionary definitions of notice is “to treat someone with some degree of attention or recognition.” To notice is to affirm to another, “I see you, you are not invisible.” It opens the possibility for connection and understanding. Noticing is the condition for empathy.

We also tend not to notice that we are lucky. As one of your economics professors, Sendhil Mullainathan, recently pointed out in a column in The New York Times, we remember the headwinds that blow against us and forget the tailwinds that help us along. Notice and be grateful for those tailwinds. Make no mistake: You are remarkable, and this week we celebrate the perseverance and hard work that got you here this afternoon, for many of you against long and challenging odds. Congratulations! You deserve to feel proud. And yet: There are 7 billion people in the world. There are 1,626 of you. There is one of me. Why us? How often do we remind ourselves that to some degree we won a global lottery over which we had no control? We began by surviving into adulthood, our first lucky portal, and passed on through several more — whether it was the luck of having predecessors who fought for access to education, or supportive parents, or financial aid, or a teacher or a team or a random book that lifted us up us out of nowhere and turned our heads or moved our hearts. “The most important things that happened to me here happened to me by accident,” one of you said. There is a responsibility that comes with recognizing that. By noticing our own luck, we can more easily notice when others don’t have it. And we can nurture the humility essential for learning and growth.

We might describe education as learning what to pay attention to. We are barraged with information. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe, a keen observer of nature, said that details can be confusing. “It is only by selection, by elimination, and by emphasis,” she said, “that we get at the real meaning of things.” Noticing means being open to unexpected and sometimes challenging points of view, being ready to let a powerful new observation lead you to reverse your position or argument. It is about the critical attention necessary to the pursuit of truth. It is about resisting the dangerous post-factual world in which we seem to find ourselves.

And as you take your diplomas into the world, don’t forget to notice what really matters to you. Pay attention to your own lives and what you want them to be. Look and find what you love, whether it’s medicine or volcanology, stand-up comedy or finance. Don’t settle for Plan B, the safe plan, until you have pursued Plan A, even if it might require a miracle. This is what I call The Parking Space Theory of Life — and I tell it to students every year. Don’t park six blocks away from your destination because you’ve spotted an easy space along the way, and are afraid you won’t find a closer one. Pay attention to where you think you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be.

You tell me you are already doing this. Keep it up, even when the pressures mount. Remember, the art of noticing is not a job. It is a way of being, a habit of moving through the world, alert and unbounded and open to others and to discoveries that impel you to learn and to change. This is what I most hope Harvard has instilled in you.

I will leave you with one last observation. When Conan O’Brien, who graduated in the class of 1984, came back last year to talk to us at Sanders Theatre, he described his love of comedy this way: “It is a shard of the truth,” he said, “a spark … that is there for a second and then disappears” — the pursuit of truth as the art of noticing, whether you are searching for stardust, or revealing for an instant the absurdities of life. He said he never tires of it, of finding, capturing, and sharing something that makes us laugh. Your degree may or may not get you noticed, but what I hope your education does guarantee is a lifetime of noticing — of catching that recurring spark. Go well, Class of 2017. Read your Chaucer out loud. Watch the squirrels. Keep looking and listening. As you may have noticed, there is no one to whom I would rather entrust the task.