Theda Skocpol address to PBK
Working Together to Meet the
Public Challenges of This Time
Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology
Phi Beta Kappa Exercises, Harvard University
May 24, 2022
Thank you to the Alpha-Iota Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa for the invitation to share thoughts today with this wonderful 2022 graduating class. Congratulations to each and every one of you for your attainment of academic excellence—and to the many family members, friends, and teachers (from kindergarten through college) who supported and guided you along the way.
In this year 2022, you are an extraordinarily diverse Phi Beta Kappa class with a rainbow of friends and peers, well prepared with the skills, ideas, and values this institution at its best nurtures in its most committed students. You have a world of opportunities before you. I wish I could look ahead fifty years to see all that you will have accomplished—making discoveries, serving the public and your communities, reaching new frontiers in law, medicine and public health, the arts, research, and teaching.
The bright news is the opportunities that lay ahead of you and how well prepared you are to seize them. The more sobering news is that your cohort, like others across history from time to time, faces extraordinarily difficult public challenges. The world today is bedeviled by deadly conflicts, attacks on truth and scientific progress, and erosion of the very bedrocks that have supported inclusive civil society and democratic institutions in the United States and beyond. If you ask, why us, you will find no good answer to that question. Some generations more than others have been called upon to face such fundamental threats. In America and Harvard’s history, think of your predecessors who attended this institution amid the Civil War—or experienced the end of Reconstruction and subsequent rollbacks of hard-won rights and the brutal rise of Jim Crow. Reflect as well on the generation that exited Harvard during the Great Depression or left the Yard for the battlefields of World War II. We can also bring to mind those who experienced the Civil Rights struggles and other movements that shook the foundations of the country during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s
Again and again, not all but most members of those cohorts, especially their leading lights, recognized and met the public challenges of their times. We are gathered today in Memorial Hall, where the alcove just outside this theater bears the names of some 136 Harvard men who died, fierce battle by fierce battle, in the war to save the U.S. Union and purge it of the scourge of legal slavery. Many of them. like Robert Gould Shaw, were fervent abolitionists, as were their families. Shaw’s Boston parents declared they were honored when his body was dumped into a trench along with those of his African American fellow soldiers, after the failure of the heroic Union assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts regiment.
We can similarly herald the names of many others, such as the brilliant intellect and NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois, who studied at the College and in 1895 became the first African American to earn a Harvard Ph.D. Others to honor include such Radcliffe graduates as Helen Keller (class of 1904), who spent her life advancing acceptance and services for the blind and other disabled people, and Maude Wood Park (class of 1898), who built college associations to advance the cause of women’s suffrage and became the first President of the League of Women Voters. We can look as well to recent graduates who played leading roles in movements for equal rights for African Americans, women, and gays, in efforts to protect our environment and fight global warming, and in projects to advance worker wellbeing and welcome immigrants and refugees.
The times in which we live today provide equally compelling challenges—including the need to work for the very survival of democracy in the United States and across the world. On the march are real and aspiring tyrants who oppress and corrupt and pollute to empower and enrich themselves and their cronies. Cynical grifters and rancid political provocateurs (some of them, sad to say, graduates of this and other elite colleges) abuse their platforms to stoke hatred and inspire violent attacks. Ready or not, and whether we like it or not, this is a critical juncture in U.S. and world history. Basic democratic principles are under manipulative and at times volent attack, with the spearpoint directed against competitive, fair, and honestly counted elections to install public officials and hold them accountable.
You will be relieved to hear (!) that today’s existential challenges are NOT yours alone to address. They must be tackled by all citizens. Nevertheless, older people already engaged welcome your fresh contributions. And as new Phi Beta Kappans, you have a special obligation to recognize and meet what Martin Luther King, Jr., once called “the fierce urgency of now.” High academic achievement and accolades from such an excellent college as this are not a prize; they are a calling to do one’s utmost to serve the common good.
Countering threats to inclusive democracy cannot be left just to the most severely affected groups. Some misguidedly claim that only Blacks can lead liberation for Blacks, only women for women, and so forth. Of course, we should always honor leadership from those who have been excluded or marginalized. But it would be a cop out to let others off the hook. All of us have a stake in working together for an open civil society and equal rights. If some are downgraded, their democratic participation discouraged, the rest will suffer distorted outcomes too. Without full participation and common efforts, our societies and governments will be unable to tackle critical crises, such as the need to develop new, carbon-free sources of energy or counter growing economic inequalities.
As I wondered how I might include some practical advice in these remarks, I remembered the experiences of the young Martin Luther King, Jr., at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. On December 1, 1955, African American seamstress Rosa Parks, weary after a day of work, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a later boarding white man. At that point, King was in his mid-twenties, a recent graduate of Boston University and newly installed as the pastor of that city’s Dexter Street Baptist Church. Those who had called him to this new post hoped he would focus more on congregation building than his politically outspoken predecessor. In fact, King was not then known as an activist, and had just recently turned down an invitation to become the president of the local NAACP. He was focused on doing well in his new position and raising his young family.
Older Civil Rights leaders who called for the bus boycott wanted to use King’s centrally located church for mass meetings; and they soon asked him, as a newcomer who could bridge existing divisions, to chair the new Montgomery Improvement Alliance that would orchestrate the ongoing struggle. King requested and took a short time to consider—and then agreed to accept this vital role. Fast-paced events pushed him to make a life-changing decision, setting him on course from which he would never look back. King continued to organize, speak, strategize, and learn with others until the day a bullet felled him—growing into the iconic Civil Rights giant we know today. Nevertheless, the youthful King’s early choices as a recent college graduate remind us that his life could have unfolded many other ways, if he had prioritized individual career success and personal comfort.
I am certainly not arguing that all of you need to become as committed to civic activism as King eventually became. Yet even as you pursue careers in many fields, you can advance the public good—right now, for example, by taking straightforward steps to learn how fair elections are administered and volunteering to help in your community or in another place that needs citizen service.
Even if we cannot (and should not) all become Martin Luther Kings, his early adult experiences convey several important lessons:
• Most basically, realize that moments of choice will come upon you abruptly—prompting you to decide how to balance and rebalance goals of career advancement, family care, and personal comfort in relation to opportunities to join with others to tackle tough public challenges. To choose wisely at such moments, you will need to fall back on fundamental values. So think hard—in advance and when the moments of decision come—about what matters most for the community as well as yourself.
•If you value working for democratic change, keep in mind that doing matters more than being. You cannot rest content with being the best-credentialled or the first incumbent of some sort—the first expert in a crucial area to work on environmental challenges, the first person of certain race, ethnicity, or gender identity to hold a given nominal leadership post. What you actually do over time, or fail to do, will matter so much more than any momentary celebrity.
•Keep in mind, too, that social progress always comes from unswerving persistence, and from doggedly working together with many others to build enduring organizations and networks. The exemplary Harvard graduates I named earlier led and served not as lone wolves, but through alliances and organizations, often ones they helped to build. The young Martin Luther King could have declined the dangers of working with the Montgomery Improvement Alliance and instead offered advice from behind the scenes as he adhered to preaching and tending his flock. He could have sent the occasional check and delivered some elegant pro-Civil Rights sermons. King eventually became a powerful agent of change because he shunned individualistic preening in favor of working with others – including with older Civil Rights veterans and many other new volunteers —to forge a long-term broadly-based movement made up of many ordinary people who, in the end, were the ones who propelled transformations.
•Perhaps the largest insight to take from the Civil Rights movement is that fundamental change starts with first steps that are bold yet gradated. When the Montgomery Bus Boycotters posed their first demands, they did not even ask for the complete desegregation of the city’s bus lines. As their boycott held and collective strength was forged, their goals became more emphatic— as did the goals of Civil Rights protestors across the South and the nation, leading in time to the revolutionary 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Forging broad alliances despite disagreements, these determined reformers pushed forward step by step to defeat fierce opposition. Keep at it! That is the lesson to learn. Social change against obstructive power goes two steps forward, one step back, so persistence to forge and wield collective clout outweighs detached political purity time and again.
A final suggestion comes from my own lifelong learning: Winning social change is not for the faint hearted. Although it may necessitate stubbornness and building power to defeat wrongdoing, that does not mean that you and your allies need to be destructive or closed off from others, even from those with whom you fundamentally disagree
In my research and life, I have learned the great value of getting to know regular people in very different occupations and walks of life. My recent research on current U.S. politics has involved going into the field in communities far from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to sit down with Americans of extremely different persuasions. Even when I interview people espousing false or hateful views, I usually find some admirable qualities, some ways to connect or at least understand where they are coming from.
On the personal side, my husband and I go to breakfast at 6am every weekday morning at a diner where the conversational regulars and drop-ins are varied in every way. They include blue-collar and white-collar people of all races and ethnicities, people struggling with various limitations, pro-Trumpers as well as well as Trump haters—and even the occasional visiting Philadelphia Eagles fan or (gasp) New York Jets fan who disrupts our admiring discussions about the New England Patriots. We talk about all aspect of life and mores and politics, and I have learned so much from the egalitarian give and take—in a setting where I am not in charge, where I can make or take a joke, and where I listen and observe not just pronounce.
I urge all of you to find such settings in your lives—get out of your professional bubbles, hear what others have to say in their own words about community matters, including people who harbor views you cannot share. Fight all necessary battles with unswerving commitment and energy. But also find various ways to listen to others and interact as an equal with a broad range of fellow citizens and human beings.
Let me wrap up on a lighter note. Having exhorted you to take on the troubles of our time, I also urge you to enjoy this wonderful graduation moment—extra special this year because you have endured epochal pandemic disruptions during your time in college.
Back in the late 1960s, my husband Bill and I graduated from Michigan State University. Already married after we had met during a summertime Civil Rights education project in Mississippi, we traveled in Europe for a few weeks before coming back to face the next steps. For us, the following phase was graduate school here at Harvard, in Sociology and Physics, respectively, along with continued civic engagement to promote inclusive changes in this institution and beyond.
So my most immediate advice is take time to celebrate and have fun with family and friends. Then, when you are refreshed and turn to the next stages of your promising young lives, consider not only how to build your careers and families, but also how to work hand in hand with others, persistently and in organized ways, to defend and advance the public good.
I feel certain that your Phi Beta Kappa cohort will do just that. Godspeed in your endeavors – and thank you for letting me share this occasion with you.