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2017 Remarks at Morning Prayers

Appleton Chapel, Memorial Church, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Good morning. Before I begin my prepared remarks, I would like to ask all of us to take a moment to think about the people in Texas and now Louisiana. To take a moment to pray for them, silently, and to also think of how each of us can do something to help in the days and weeks and months that come as those communities face what will be a long and difficult and trying process of bringing their lives back in order. So if we could just take a moment to think about that and send our strongest good wishes to everyone there. Thank you. 

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Each year since 2007, I have joined you here on the first day of classes to seize a moment of contemplation and community before the hectic work of the new year begins. I have relished this invitation and opportunity because it has enabled me to step back, to lift my sights for a few minutes from the demands of the pressing array of issues of a brand-new year in order to reflect on the important and the meaningful. It is an opportunity to think not just about what we do and how, but to ask the more fundamental question of why. What is the compass that we steer by? Where is our North Star? What are the values that motivate all we do and bind us together as a community?

Let me endeavor to state it flat-out: We believe in the pursuit of truth as our common purpose. We believe in the power of learning and discovery to enhance human capacity and in our responsibility to develop that capacity to serve the world. We believe in the value of every member of this community and in each person’s potential to contribute to the common good. We believe that our diversity offers us the strongest possible foundation for our strength because it enables us to enrich, to educate, and to challenge one another. We believe in the obligations that each of us bears toward one another and toward something greater than ourselves.

Over the past several months, and most recently in Charlottesville, Virginia, we have seen loathsome demonstrations of hatred and violence, reviving the most shameful episodes of the past and foregrounding the very worst of what we have been and regrettably still are as a nation. I grew up in the 1950s in segregated, racist Virginia, in a state that endeavored to close its public schools rather than comply with the mandate for integration in the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision of 1954. But over the past half-century I watched the state slowly but significantly change — integrate its schools and universities, elect an African-American governor, then even vote for a black president. But on Aug. 12, I saw white supremacy resurgent, setting its sights on a university town with values like our own to mount its challenge and to advance its evil and its cruelty.

There is much we can and should do in our academic work to understand and combat bigotry. We study implicit bias, we explore connections between intolerance and burgeoning economic inequality, we investigate how education can mitigate the cruelties of racism, and we prepare students to serve as agents of the rule of law.

But as we undertake this work with all the scholarly rigor and openness to debate that is necessary for its legitimacy and its success, we must at the same time articulate clearly and forcefully the values that inspire it. We must condemn the racism that feels free to speak in a way it hasn’t for nearly half a century. We must denounce the Nazism and anti-Semitism that my father and so many others of his generation risked their lives to defeat. We must affirm the full citizenship of LGBTQ Americans, including their right to qualify for military service. We must use the illumination of education to mitigate hatred and violence. Prejudice is taught and nurtured and modelled. Tolerance and inclusion can be as well. Education serves as the arteries of a just society.

But universities cannot accomplish their purposes in a world of bigotry and hatred, in a world where people are categorically excluded and degraded, where minds are closed or overtly hostile to differences of perspective, or experience, or identity, where violence and threats replace rational discourse and exchange.

These values are fundamental to all we do. We have been reminded that we cannot take them for granted. We cannot assume that our progress toward realizing them cannot be reversed. Let us rededicate ourselves to their defense.