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Welcoming remarks to the incoming class of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Thank you, Garth, for that very kind introduction. It is a great pleasure for me to stand here and welcome you all to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and every year as I do this I have a flashback to my beginning of graduate school—which wasn’t here—but it means a great deal to me to see all these faces and people with such enthusiasm and such ambition about learning.

I understand you are 788 strong, that about half of you are women, and that about a third of you are from outside the United States—representing 59 countries. And you also represent almost every state in the Union, though there are a few states left out. Good luck next year, Delaware.

You have come from all over the country and around the globe to join a very special part of Harvard. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is an entity that nurtures a vision of the purest scholarship, of research driven by curiosity and by the intrinsic challenge of the unknown, of research that transcends the immediacy of the world and asks the biggest, most fundamental questions: What is the universe made of? Where did the world come from? How does it work? Who are we? Where are we going? Where should we be going?

You may be here to pose questions like these through physics or through philosophy, through English literature or through electrical engineering. But you are all here because you are driven to know, to understand, and to share your discoveries in publications, in teaching, and in work that presses the limits of our minds.

Your presence here is distinctive in another way as well, and Garth has already made an allusion to that. Other students beginning at Harvard this week are enrolled in programs with fixed timetables: MBAs take 2 years to get their degrees; law students finish in 3; undergraduates are here for 4—we are just welcoming the Class of 2021. But who knows when your graduation dates will be? Now, some of you who are master’s students may be finishing as soon as 2018 or ’19. But I am not going to hazard any dates for you PhDs…

Now I know this unboundedness can be a concern for families and friends and people inside and outside the academy—and I heard your nervous laughter as I brought up this subject. There is a lot of attention focused these days on time to degree—attacks, for example, on humanities PhDs that reportedly require an average of 9 years. And I’m sure you have your own worries about how soon you will be walking across this stage and how soon you will sit in Tercentenary Theatre and the president proclaim, “By virtue of the authority delegated to me . . . I welcome you to the ancient and universal company of scholars.”

Now these are, of course, very legitimate concerns. But I want to speak for a moment in praise of the unboundedness of this journey on which you are setting forth. On how—in an important way—timelessness defines your identity as scholars. On how it is an important part of the distinctiveness of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the pursuit of graduate study.

We live in a world of speed—of faster communications, faster travel, faster trades, faster time to market, faster results. Time is indeed a precious resource that we should not waste. Yet there is so much we miss, so much we fail to understand if we don’t regard time itself as an opportunity.

Knowledge and speed are often inversely correlated. True scholarship requires you to ask questions that you may never be able to answer, to follow leads that may prove to be dead ends, to explore with a rigor and a depth that requires persistence as well as discipline. If, as often has been remarked, journalism is the “first rough draft of history,” scholarship digs deeper, to learn more, to understand more completely and more accurately, rather than just being driven by a press deadline. Eureka moments—whether in stem cell science or linguistics or literary criticism—build on carefully erected foundations—precedents and contexts that extend far beyond the moment.

Four years ago, Jennifer Roberts, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the History of Art, published a wonderful essay in the Harvard Magazine in which she extolled what she called “The Power of Patience.” She described how she asks her undergraduate students to spend three hours looking at a work of art. They are initially incredulous—they can’t imagine why they should do such a thing—until they try it and they discover that the artifact that they see at the end of those three hours is strikingly different from the one they perceived at the outset. Professor Roberts challenges her students to engage in what she calls “deceleration, patience and immersive attention.”  She observes, and I quote her, “Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want,” she says, “to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

Now I’m sure that all of you have encountered such pressures of speed from the world around you. But in your choice to pursue these graduate degrees and to embrace the life of scholarship, you have demonstrated your resistance to these influences. The fact that you are here means that you are beyond needing permission.

So I want to congratulate you for that choice and encourage you in your dedication to it. Your work must be driven by the logic and the power of the questions it seeks to answer, not by a ticking clock. You must learn to revel in the power of patience—in an archive, in a lab, in the field, in a lonely library carrel. Your discoveries will not be captured in the 140 characters of a tweet. Relish, don’t resist, the opportunity of time that graduate student training offers you.

To provide such opportunities, to think for the long term, to transcend the immediate and the present—those are—at their heart—what universities are for. And you, as aspiring scholars, are at the very heart of the university, of this university. Welcome to Harvard.