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Commencement 2002

“The Limits of Logic”

 
Graduate English Address, by Avery W. Gardiner

Graduate English Address, by Avery W. Gardiner ’97, J.D. ’02. Her father, considering the weather and his daughter’s future law practice in Washington, D.C., said that she would obviously be a great “rainmaker.”

 

My first job was at the Dairy Queen in my hometown of Augusta, Maine. I won’t claim that everything I need to know in life I learned at the Dairy Queen—otherwise, I’ve wasted a lot of time and tuition dollars here at Harvard. But there is at least one lesson I learned back then that our educations at Harvard sometimes neglect: that logic and analytical reasoning have their limits.

The patterns of ice cream sales are an example of this limit of logic….For those of you “from away,” as we say in Maine, remember that February is a cold, dark, and sorrowful month in northern New England. The sun sets before 5 p.m., and the temperature gauge registers a bitter 26 degrees as you plow through the snow on your way to class. Any rational person would predict that it would be a dreadful month for ice-cream sales. But February is a remarkable time for my old Dairy Queen. Cars line up for the drive-thru, their occupants desperate for a fix of hot fudge and an M&M Blizzard®. It defies logic, but in the depths of winter, one escape from the cold is to eat frozen food.

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Gardiner: "We still need to learn when to lead with our analytical reasoning…and when to lead just with our senses and our souls."
Jim Harrison

I learned the limits of logic again this past fall, through much more poignant circumstances. In the last year we have all witnessed terror and tragedy previously unknown to us. I’ll never forget calling my friends that September morning, informing some of them for the first time of the horrors unfolding on my television screen. To a person, my Harvard friends responded with logic and reason, asking what had happened, how many were hurt, who had done it. I duly recited the information I had. They turned on their televisions, and we compared notes on the information coming in from each network. How many planes are still in the air? Is there a car bomb at the State Department? After a few minutes, we said goodbye and agreed to keep each other posted throughout the day.

Then I thought to call my mother and tell her the news. She didn’t respond with the analytical who/what/where/when/ why questions of my Harvard classmates. Rather, she burst into tears, despairing that such a horror could have happened, that the world had come to this. Her anguish was contagious. As I listened to her, I began to feel the emotional impact for the first time. I turned off my analytical side and tuned into my heart and soul.

Harvard has taught us much. It has honed our analytical prowess. We read pieces of literature and dissect them. We challenge the underpinning assumptions of an economic model. We struggle to understand how cancer cells metastasize. We parse the footnotes of Supreme Court opinions. We plug data into spreadsheets to calculate the optimal mix of debt and equity. We even break down the plague of terrorism into its component parts, trying to understand its sources so that we might prevent its recurrence.

President Summers declared last fall that he wants Harvard graduates to possess the building blocks to understand and improve the world around us. He stood in this very space and pledged not to rest until the endowment coffers are full, and all of us know the difference between a gene and a chromosome. On his behalf, I’ll make it crystal clear before we receive our diplomas: a gene contains the DNA blueprint to synthesize proteins, and a chromosome is the structure that organizes thousands of those genes.

But we still need to learn when to lead with our analytical reasoning—the part of us that knows the difference between genes and chromosomes—and when to lead just with our senses and our souls. I would venture to guess that there are many of us at this illustrious gathering who haven’t yet mastered that part of growing up.

My mother’s visceral reaction to September’s horrors shook me out of my litany of facts and figures. This is a lesson we learn collectively when tragedy strikes, as it did that autumn morning. We can also learn it individually through the mundane experiences of everyday life—here at Harvard, or wherever we may be.

Our capacity to confront the world’s problems resides in our ability to disaggregate those problems through rational thought, and to know when reason is not enough. Moreover, that awareness defines our capacity to confront more personal quandaries. Our challenge, as daughters and sons of Harvard, is to blend our collective expertise in analytical reasoning with the communal wisdom of emotional engagement.

Out of loyalty to my first employer, if a bit of Dairy Queen helps you fuse those two qualities, then I recommend a medium Blizzard. Speaking purely analytically, the Oreo kind tastes best.