The Three Principles of Transformation
On May 22, presiding over her final Baccalaureate ceremony, President Drew Faust spoke to the graduating seniors of 2018 about transformation—both theirs, and her own. While recounting the transformations that had taken place at Harvard during the class’s four-year tenure, the speech also served as prelude to Thursday’s Commencement address by Congressman John Lewis, LL.D. ’12, who played a transformative role in Faust’s own life when she was an undergraduate and experienced firsthand the transformative power of a liberal-arts education against a backdrop of social injustice.
“As I watched on a flickering black and white TV,” she recalled, “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, ‘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.” (Faust spoke in detail about these events and her decision to march during morning prayers at Memorial Church in the spring of 2015.)
Transformation, Faust said, “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.” The class of 2018 had seen such change, she recounted, from the unionization of graduate students, to agitation over sexual harassment and sexual assault, to the likely “last all-male Hasty Pudding cast” and the “first ‘non-binary’ gender option for the annual Valentine datamatch.”
As a class, she told them, “You’ve encouraged girls to change the world with computer science and technology, and boosted health and education for kids in your native Rwanda, where, homeless and alone at age nine, your one request—to go to school—changed your life.”
“By the end of 2016, as juniors,” she continued, “you found yourselves at the heart of an institution whose motto is ‘veritas,’ yet you were 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.”
“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,” Faust explained. “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,” she said, referring to the spinal-cord injury suffered by freshman football player Ben Abercrombie ’21 in the fall of 2017, “that inspired you to partner with a local business to raise funds for him and his family. You ignited.”
Faust then laid out three principles of transformation: First, that the transformation is “not about you,” but rather about becoming “transformative agents yourselves. Congressman Lewis,” Faust said, “calls it making ‘necessary trouble,’ a willingness to ‘get in the way.’ I hear in your stories,” she told the class, “that same imperative, arrived at, and expressed, as I’ve just suggested, in a thousand new and different ways.”
Second, that “a liberal-arts education prepares you 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,” Faust’s own discipline, “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.”
Third, that “catching fire may be a momentary flare, but transforming the world is a long haul.” For this point, Faust gave some historical context, noting that “50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was chosen as Harvard’s very first Class Day speaker, an appointment he could not keep.” (King was assassinated in April 1968). “But he left us with a call to action that still rings out today,” she said, “and I’d like to leave it with you now: ‘Transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. Transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace.’”
“Look outward together,” she concluded, “and truly light the world.”
The Baccalaureate ceremony, a Harvard tradition since the seventeenth century, now includes readings by members of the senior class from Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Hinduism, as well as the traditional singing of Psalm 78 to the tune “St. Martin’s,” an observance since at least 1806. Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church Jonathan L.Walton conducts the service.
The full text of President Faust’s Baccalaureate address appears here.