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2018 Baccalaureate Service: “To Catch Fire and Light the World”

Memorial Church, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Greetings, Harvard College Class of 2018! And congratulations! What a privilege it is to be here with you today, in this hectic, joyous, scary, hopeful, and glorious week, as you prepare to pass through the gates into the company of educated persons. Four years ago, under the threat of thunderstorms, we gathered for your convocation in a tent on the Science Center Plaza. It was broiling hot, and you sat fanning yourselves as Dean Khurana and I and a cloud of elders in dark robes welcomed you to the next four years. We told you that in fact a kind of alchemy was about to happen — that here, amidst the whomping willows and courses in the dark arts, as you wandered and connected and explored, Harvard would transform you, stir your hearts and minds perhaps as never before. At about that point, an alumnus at the back was overcome by either the rhetoric or the heat and actually fainted. And now here we are, just us, all upright (at least so far) in this strange medieval ritual we call the baccalaureate at a moment in your lives more suited for bacchanalia. It is one of my favorite events, although still, after 11 years, no less daunting, as I am to stand before you to impart the sober wisdom of age to the semi-sober impatience of youth.

Transformation. It is a word you have probably heard a lot over the past four years. Dean Khurana uses it at the outset of every meeting he convenes — affirming the mission of the College as, and I’m quoting him, a “commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.” At least some of you have remained dubious about this project. One of you captured that when you said you didn’t really know what “transformative power” meant, except that it was “vaguely evocative of finding yourself, in an amorphous college-y sort of way,” and that you were sure it lay ahead of you somewhere. We all, at some point, want to transform. But transformation is different from change. It has a direction. It creates a new form out of a familiar thing. It’s thorough, it’s often radical, and, when it’s about us, it’s usually positive. Nobody says, “I want to be Kafka’s character in ‘The Metamorphosis’ who wakes up as a cockroach” — the kind of change that may occur after 48 hours in Lamont drinking Red Bull, or one too many Jefe’s burritos at 4 a.m. I am pretty sure that’s not the transformation Dean Khurana had in mind.

So, what happened? How did our experiment in transformation work out? It’s a good question. At the very least, you entered a stream of change from the moment you arrived, experiencing, as a class, many firsts and lasts (and even though we are in a church, feel free to make some noise): 

You were first with a concentration in Theater, Dance & Media, and first to explore the reinvented art museums that reopened soon after you arrived. You were barely acclimated when you survived the Snowpocalypse — also known as Snowmageddon and SnOMG — Harvard’s first snow day closure in recent memory, bookended, of course, by four blizzards in March just in time for your senior theses. You were the first freshmen to have official voluntary composting in the dorms — outside of the involuntary composting in your mini-fridges.

Your food, if not transformative, evolved, as you inaugurated Saturday brunch; lasted through the first dining hall workers’ strike in 30 years, some of you joining the picket lines; and lined up — in a blizzard, naturally — to try Hawaiian food at Pokéworks.

You embraced new technologies, as you learned two-step verification. And you got to know each other in evolving spaces, like Tinder or The League waitlist — hoping for greater intimacy — swiping left and swiping right.

The campus itself transformed — as Cabot Library morphed the Smith Center was reimagined, Winthrop House reborn — and still won the Straus Cup for the third straight year, and Lamont stopped checking your backpacks. Our language shifted, along with our culture: House masters elided to “faculty deans”; the Law School lounge became “Belinda Hall”; final clubs, fraternities, and sororities became USGSOs; and entire Schools assumed new names. With your encouragement, the College adopted an Honor Code. You saw graduate students vote to unionize; and the entire campus agitate over sexual harassment and sexual assault. You welcomed the first Dean of Inclusion and Belonging, and after 174 years, because of your persistence, you likely witnessed the last all-male Hasty Pudding cast. 

As Harvard changed, you changed Harvard, in distinctive ways.

You revived old traditions — like the mumps — and the first Frozen Four appearance for men’s hockey in 23 years. And you closed out some other traditions. Alas, a string of nine football victories over a certain school in Connecticut came to an end. You saw the last seven minutes of Harvard Time and the last of free HBO.

And you started a few traditions of your own: How about the first “non-binary” gender option for the annual Valentine datamatch; how about a play called “Black Magic” about race and identity that shattered precedent on the Loeb main stage; and how about an 18th Howe Cup victory that gave the women’s squash team the most in the nation’s history? Not bad.

And in case anyone doubted your versatility and range, you produced prize-winning theses on Lassa virus detection; on misinformation in social network news; on Nigerian sex worker migration; on the cultural history of the helicopter in Vietnam; on Swedish-Muslim identity; on carbon storage in salt marshes — just to name a few.

Meantime, the world beyond Harvard Yard grew less stable and more uncertain — “so different,” as one of you said, “than when we entered.” Now, in case you were feeling special, I am obliged to state the well-worn truth that every class and every generation faces a precarious world. Consider just two of your forerunners: By commencement, roughly half of the Harvard Class of 1918 had left to fight in World War I, many never to return; or think about the Class of 1968 — that was my college graduation year, and not so long ago, at least compared to 1918 — we confronted a seemingly apocalyptic world of war, riots, and assassinations, which we were convinced we would set right before our fifth reunion, rallying behind the cry, “Never trust anyone over 30!”

And yet you, Class of 2018, have a claim in this contest — as you enter a roiling and turbulent world, where every day feels bizarrely dangerous, as if the other shoe is about to drop. In four years you have witnessed calamitous violence nationwide, cast your first votes for president in a divisive and polarizing election, and observed the fraying cords of civility and trust. By the end of 2016, as juniors, you found yourselves at the heart of an institution whose motto is “veritas,” in a climate where “alternative facts” fuel public discourse, and “post-truth” was the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year. And all this amidst a technological revolution, begun in no small part right here at Harvard, propelling a transformation as complex and disruptive as any in human history. No matter what your politics, the jolt of these experiences threw you into the public sphere, with a new sense of responsibility.

You became, as one of you put it, a class of “movements” for change. You marched for causes of every kind, challenged one another over free speech by inviting and protesting the same speaker, and you advocated for global gender equality with stand-up comedy. You won a Marshall scholarship to use art as activism, created a college admissions website for students from all backgrounds, and supported DACA students in a candlelight vigil here on the steps of Memorial Church. You’ve encouraged girls to change the world with computer science and technology, and you boosted health and education for kids in your native Rwanda, where, homeless and alone at age 9, your one request — to go to school — changed your life.

And so we have a partial answer to our question: You did transform. Writer Lawrence Weschler calls it “catching fire,” when people, or sometimes whole places just going about their business, suddenly ignite. They become, as he puts it, “intensely focused and alive,” and “their lives bec[o]me different than they thought they would be.” Thursday’s Commencement speaker, John Lewis, caught “on fire” — the exact words he used — when he was a student just about your age, and the injustice of segregation came to seem no longer tolerable. He describes it as the Spirit of History descending upon him, compelling him to risk beatings and even his own life in the struggle for Civil Rights. “I came to believe,” he writes, “that this force is on the side of what is right and just … [A]t certain points in life, in the flow of human existence, this spirit finds you or selects you, it chases you down, and you have no choice; you must … carry out what must be done.” This describes the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s; it also describes the Parkland students who have determined that school shooting deaths must stop, that there can be no further excuses for letting more people like their 17 schoolmates and teachers lose their lives.

Many of you have caught fire as well during your time here. Perhaps it was that day in your sociology course when you learned that deaths from breast cancer were 37 percent higher for black women than for white, and you resolved to change health inequities and organized Harvard’s first Black Health Matters Conference. Perhaps it was your faith in God that inspired you to start a weekly gathering to discuss how to live a life of joy and purpose. Or perhaps it was the death of a friend that led you to push legislation to prevent gun-related suicides and inspire a crowd of thousands against gun violence at the Boston March for Our Lives. Or perhaps it was the injury of a teammate that inspired you to partner with a local business to raise funds for him and his family. You ignited. Some might even say you’re “lit.”

And here’s the first of three points I want to make about transformation before you head to Widener’s hallowed steps to take your class photo. Let’s call them the Three Essential Principles of Transformation.

Principle 1 — Flip the Story (It’s Not About You)

Point one is that while we were all somehow expecting Harvard to transform you, you became transformative agents yourselves. To paraphrase John Lennon, transformation is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Surprise yourselves, I said at convocation four years ago. You did. You flipped the story. You realized, as Steve Jobs once put it, that you could “poke” the world, right through its walls, and make it better. But it was not just that you could make it better; you had to make it better. That moment came for me when I was a freshman in college, and it was because of John Lewis. As I watched on a flickering black-and-white TV as he and hundreds of others seeking their constitutional rights were tear-gassed and clubbed on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, I knew I had to do something. I heard the voice of Martin Luther King declare that “No American is without responsibility.” We must all, he said, “help bear the burden,” and he called for a second march. I knew I had to go. I felt a moral imperative to act — it was as if there was no other choice. Congressman Lewis calls it making “necessary trouble,” a willingness to “get in the way.” I hear in your stories that same imperative, arrived at, and expressed, as I have just suggested, in a thousand new and different ways.

Every year I have told students: Do what matters to you. Find what you love. It might be stem cell research, or writing screenplays, or cryptocurrency finance. But don’t settle for Plan B, the safe plan, until you have tried Plan A, even if it might require a miracle. I call it the Parking Space Theory of Life. Don’t park 10 blocks away from your destination because you think you won’t find a closer space. Go to where you want to be. You can always circle back to where you have to be. It’s about doing what fulfills you. And that is important. But you have been telling me something more, and it might be time for me to amend and expand the Parking Space Theory of Life. Not just because of Uber and Lyft and the imminent arrival of driverless cars. But because during these four years you have not only come to see your own lives differently. You have developed a more expansive goal — a broadening sense of “where you want to be,” based on a new set of questions: not just “What are my passions?” but “How can I help?” and “What is necessary at this time and place in the world?” It is not just about your passions; it is about your purpose. Your expectations changed: The transformation promised at your convocation turned out to be less about you, and more about everything around you.

Principle 2 — See With Fresh Eyes

The truth is — and this is my second point — that’s exactly what a liberal arts education prepares you to do. It enables us to see the world in order to understand how we can transform it. Think of the habits of mind that underpin every field of knowledge: the imperative to seek out diverse points of view when we lack perspective; the patience to deliberate in disorienting strangeness; the capacity to improvise in the face of the unexpected — including when to listen, and when to do nothing. From literature and the arts we gain imagination and empathy, a second sight on our common humanity. From history we draw courage against all hope, understanding that things were once different, and can be different again. From science we learn humility and persistence, knowing that a sudden insight can re-frame the universe.

Most of us come to Harvard believing in merit — that talent, combined with hard work and a little luck, pays off. Rightly so. And yet the spark of learning, the thing that catches us on fire, feels less like our own achievement and more like a gift — less earned than bestowed, touching any one of us at any moment. Some may call it insight, others may call it genius. But here’s the rub: Personal transformation is the easy part. The harder part is what comes next — to light the world, when we feel a responsibility to change it.

As leaders, as young people, you bear a special burden of that responsibility. There was a reason we in the ’60s were loath to trust anyone over 30. It is the same reason that led the Parkland students to determine that adults had failed them, that they themselves must be the ones to stop gun violence in schools. It is the reason that I invest so much hope and faith in all of you to use your talents and education to fix this broken world. It will, after all, be your world far longer than it remains ours. More than a century ago, Harvard philosopher William James described that spirit of responsibility as “the true Harvard,” alive in its most “undisciplinable” sons, as he put it — they were all sons then — “… intoxicated and exultant with the nourishment they find here.” And he went on to say, “Beware when God lets loose a thinker on the world … all things then have to rearrange themselves.”

Principle 3 — Take It With You

I want to leave you with one last point, Transformation Principle 3, as you enter your lives beyond Harvard College. As we let you loose upon the world, take this spirit of transformation with you. Keep the fire fueled by your education burning. Catching fire may be a momentary flare, but transforming the world is a long haul. One of you put it this way: “I don’t think there is anything that makes me or anyone special in the way we succeed, except having that spirit that tells us to keep going.” Don’t lose that spirit.

Take it from your professors — from Arthur Kleinman, who showed you caregiving social science; from Sarah Lewis, who inspired you toward equal justice; from Alyssa Goodman, who encouraged you to map the universe, no matter what your background. Take it from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who recently told us at the Kennedy School that life isn’t only about being in the room where it happens — that famous “Hamilton” line from your freshman year — it’s also about bringing your whole self into the room, especially the parts of you that don’t fit in, because then you just might transform the whole place. Take it, always, from each other — because Harvard never leaves you, and your connection is just beginning.

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was chosen as Harvard’s very first Class Day speaker, an appointment he could not keep. But he left us with a call to action that still rings out today, and I’d like to leave it with you now. He said: “Transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. Transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace.”

Go well, Class of 2018. Catch fire. Swipe right. Look outward together, and truly light the world.