Words to Live By
The graduates heard in multiple ways how they might lead their lives. Herewith, four samples. Full texts and audio and video recordings of these and other Commencement week speeches are available at harvardmag.com/commencement-2011.
“Finish Your Own Sentences”
In her Baccalaureate remarks to the graduating seniors on Tuesday afternoon in Memorial Church, where the late Peter J. Gomes had long held sway, President Drew Faust, who took office in 2007, reflected on the past four years, as “you and I began our journeys at Harvard together.” She drew on Gomes himself to fashion her talk.
These past four years…[y]ou discovered passions you could not have imagined. You realized in this diverse and distinctive class just how difficult it is to “peg” anyone, especially yourself.
You are what Reverend Peter Gomes might have called, and I quote him, “an illustration in search of a sermon.” As I thought about what I might say to you today, it occurred to me that this was an apt, and meaningful, description of Peter Gomes himself.…[H]e remains at the center of what it means to be a part of Harvard, a moral tradition and force in the legacy of “veritas” that is not just a succession of truths, but a compass.…In fact, universities once assumed that goodness and the search for truth were indivisible, and this assumption animated everything Peter Gomes did. Remain mindful of others, but decide for yourself. Be who you are, or at least be discovering who you are, and not what others think you should be.…
As a man of multiple labels, Peter Gomes was ahead of his time. A Republican professor at Harvard, a gay Baptist preacher, a black Pilgrim Society president from Plymouth. He often described himself as “Afro-Saxon.”… [Y]ou could feel across campus the ripple of his singularity.
After coming out publicly, in 1992, he gave a commencement speech to an anxious audience at Princeton Theological Seminary, and, as a man of words, he let no one finish his sentences for him. He said, “I know that my being here today is the cause of no small consternation for some of you. After all, I am…black…and I am…Baptist…and I am…from Harvard!” Playful. Unapologetic. Unbounded by others’ expectations.…
And so, on Thursday, as you pass through the gates into the ancient company of educated men and women, you face an important question. Not, Will I get a job? Will I succeed? Will I satisfy everyone else’s expectations?—though these worries are real. But the real question is: How, within the possible narratives, can I most be myself? How will I finish my own sentence, when I say “I went to Harvard, and then I…”
…The world you face is daunting, and it is uncertain. Charting a course is hard. But you are well prepared—with the analytic spirit, the capacity for questioning and for judgment, and the habits of mind your education has given you these past four years.
Philosopher William James drew an important distinction at a Harvard Commencement dinner a century ago. He said there is an “outer Harvard,” a “more educated cleverness in the service of popular idols.” But, he continued to say, there is also an “inner spiritual Harvard,” carried by those who come not because the University is a club, but, as he put it, “because they have heard of her persistently atomistic constitution, of her tolerance of exceptionality and eccentricity, of her devotion to the principles of individual vocation and choice.…You cannot,” he said, “make single, one-idea-ed regiments of her classes….” This is just as meaningful in 2011 as it was in 1903.
So go, and live syncopated lives.…Be true to Harvard by being true to yourselves. Search for your own sermons. Finish your own sentences. And then rewrite them, again and again.
Photograph by Jim Harrison
“The Courage to Not Make Plans”
At the College Class Day, on Wednesday, two seniors offer serious remarks—the Harvard Orations. Laura Jaramillo ’10 (’11), a government concentrator and Pforzheimer House resident, spoke about her unusually fraught path to and through Harvard.
Work hard, we have been told since we were kids, and you will achieve your wildest dreams. And so we have worked the nights away, with a sense that if we fill all the check boxes the desired goal must follow.…And yet, I have a terrible thing to say today…: sometimes, plans fall through.…
When I was 13 years old I had my entire life planned out….I knew what I was going to study, where I was going to work, when I would get married, and exactly how many children I was going to have one day. But I also lived in Colombia in the early 2000s, and the violence that had for years been escalating in the countryside one day came knocking on my door. My family was being threatened by guerrillas, and within a month, we found ourselves at the Miami International Airport with everything we could fit in four suitcases.
I kicked and screamed and complained about the unfathomable unfairness of the world. But life has an implacable way of continuing without break, regardless of how we feel about our broken hearts or trampled dreams. Soon enough, I had to pick myself up, learn English, and get through school like everyone else. After a few more ups and downs, I somehow ended up at Harvard.
When I was a sophomore, my family’s asylum case came to its final step in the court. Despite nearly a decade of building a new life, of working hard, and doing everything right…[o]ur asylum claim was denied, and once again we found ourselves packing what could fit in a suitcase. Three years ago I left Harvard not knowing when I would have the luxury of staying up all night at Lamont again, or complaining over my House open list about the lack of hot breakfast.…
I missed the impassioned debates with my friends in the Pfoho dining hall. I missed the exhilarating feeling of walking into Annenberg and being reminded of the dream that it is to be a Harvard student….
I cannot step in front of this microphone…and presume to impart…some sort of wisdom that you haven’t yet discovered on your own. All I can share is what I have learned from my uncanny ability to have my life plans completely fall through: make sure that you live life in such a way, that even if you don’t get where you meant to go, it was well worth the trip.
Often people won’t congratulate you on doing the things you love, they won’t cite you and they won’t pay you more. You won’t be able to put them on your résumé (though most of us will probably find a way). The great privilege we have had access to comes with great responsibility. But don’t forget the great responsibility you have to yourself. Have the courage, every once in a while, to not make plans, and discover the wonderful things that could happen. Find, in your busy lives, time to enjoy beauty, to let yourself be fascinated, to get carried away.
Photograph by Stu Rosner
“The World Needs Less of the Same”
Graduate English orator Adam Price, M.P.A. ’11, roused the morning exercises audience with his words, his delivery—he was a member of Parliament from the nationalist Plaid Cymru party—and the rich voice of his native Wales.
In Harvard Yard in 1775 George Washington’s army was housed here in Hollis Hall, wracked by exhaustion and fear, sustained only by coffee, canteen food, and the promise of future happiness—it sounds a bit like finals week.
Lined up on the opposite bank of the Charles River were hundreds of my Welsh ancestors, the Royal Welch Fusiliers fighting for the British Army against the American Revolution.
I guess I should apologize for it, really. You seem to have made a success of this independence thing. Well done, and thanks for leaving us Canada.
But the people I think about most today are those of my Welsh ancestors who were on this side of the river, fighting for the revolution. Who showed an independence of mind whose spirit I want to invoke today.
Fourteen of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence were Welsh, who had found here in America, like I have at Harvard, a space to think and chart their own course. Who were inspired by the dream of freedom, first forged here, that is still troubling tyrants today from Tripoli to Damascus.
Unlike the hidebound British who never broke ranks, the American revolutionaries knew the value of fighting for each other, yet thinking for themselves.
They struck out on their own, and built something new together.
Today…we live in a world of creeping homogenization.…Are we all slowly beginning to speak, to see, to sound the same? And even think alike?
…At its best the university is an incubator of independent inquiry, a cacophony of voices, opinions, arguments, a living debate that reshapes us as we shape it.
But here’s the irony: that to graduate we must first master the established theories. So though we are meant to stand here on the shoulders of giants, it can sometimes feel as if that body of accumulated learning, all the tried and tested frameworks and formulas, are weighing down upon us, crushing our creativity.
And threatening to sink us if we are not careful.
In a world where the deepest problems defy easy resolution, surely the greatest risk is not taking risks at all.
So will we have the courage to mount our own quiet revolution?
Generations ago, there was an army of people drawn here from many lands that rejected the status quo. That turned their world upside down.
So let’s today salute them: the dissenters, the mavericks and heretics, pioneers and prime movers.
Who know that without our willing to be wrong, we can never be right.
That only by questioning what is, can we begin to imagine what might be.…
The world needs less of the same. It needs us to work together and think for ourselves. It needs the commonwealth of us and the republic of you.
So together, let’s make today our independence day, and in our liberty strive to serve the common good.
Photograph by Stu Rosner
“If Your Dreams Do Not Scare You”
Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and guest speaker for the afternoon exercises, recounted her own Harvard education—when she conducted research in stacks, where books were stored—and outlined the hopeful signs of democracy in Africa and of economic recovery and civic revival in her war-torn country. She then drew upon her own life, before her triumphant election in 2005, as a source of some advice.
I urge you, Harvard graduates, class of 2011, to be fearless about the future. Just because something has not been done as yet, doesn’t mean it cannot be done. I was never deterred from running for president just because there had never been any other female elected as a head of state in Africa. Simply because political leadership in Liberia had always been a “boys’ club” didn’t mean it was right, and so I remained undeterred.…
As you approach your future, there will be ample opportunity to become jaded and cynical, but I urge you to resist cynicism—the world is still a beautiful place and change is possible. As I have noted…my path to the presidency was never straightforward or guaranteed. With prison, death threats, and exile, there were many opportunities to quit, to forget about the dream, yet we all persisted. I have always maintained the conviction that my country and people are so much better than our recent history indicates. I have come to appreciate these difficult moments, but I believe I’m a better leader, a better person, with a richer appreciation for the present because of my resilient past.
So graduates of 2011, the size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. If you start off with a small dream, you may not have much left when it is fulfilled because along the way, life will task your dreams and make demands on you. I am, however, bullish about the future of our world because of everyone in this Yard, because of those who have graduated today. Fearlessness for the future, youthfulness of the heart, toughness for the distractions, creativeness for the complexities: these remain the indispensable ingredients of national and global transformation. Add to that envelope the elements of hope—robust hope and resilience—and there’s no telling what can be accomplished.
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