and Cultural

Before he narrated the poetic adventures of Mahalia Mouse, the female rodent who became a scientist (rather than the subject of a scientific experiment), and sang his encore of “I’m a Manatee,” honorand and afternoon speaker John A. Lithgow ’67 talked, in “An Actor’s Own Words,” about two humans who won Harvard’s Arts Medal: Pete Seeger ’40 and Bonnie Raitt ’72. Each used art to bring about social change (cleansing the Hudson River and teaching inner-city children music, respectively). Lithgow then made the lesson general.



John A. Lithgow
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Now my entire speech could be devoted to stories like this: David Hays [’52] and the National Theatre of the Deaf, Mira Nair [’79] and her film school in Uganda, William Christie [’66] and his “Jardins des Voix,” Yo-Yo Ma [’76, D.Mus. ’91] and his Silk Road Project. These were all marvelous, inspiring tales, but what was especially exciting about them was the fact that they were being told to college students, just at the moment when they most needed to hear them.

Because here is the point:

Many of you are leaving Harvard with lofty, ambitious goals. (Those of you who have no immediate goals, don’t worry, you will discover them soon.) A lot of you will achieve those goals, some with extravagant success. In fact, I’m secretly counting on you to go out and make things right in this perilous, suffering world and in this deeply troubled nation. But when you get what you’re aiming for, or even as you go through the process of getting it, think about what else you can also do. Think about the people I just described to you, how they went beyond their original aspirations, sometimes in wildly unlikely ways. Think about how they made a difference in the world and how much joy and pride they took in what they accomplished. Think about how they mingled art and commerce for the public good. And then, if you like, take the word “art” out of the equation; because you certainly don’t have to be an artist to follow their example. It is sometimes a very simple thing to be creative, to be useful, to be practical, and to be generous.  

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