Harvard Baccalaureate 2015: “Live Beyond Fear”
“You entered as the most diverse class in the history of the College,” President Drew Faust told the graduating seniors of 2015 in her May 26 Baccalaureate address. But “what has distinguished you most has been your willingness to speak out, whether by pressing for greater support for BGLTQ students or creating the powerful message of I, Too, Am Harvard,”—a dramatic performance highlighting issues of marginalization and exclusion—or by “starting a campus magazine on feminism, race, and religion.”
But before getting to the heart of her parting words of wisdom, Faust recounted a few of the experiences and accomplishments of the class, many firsts among them: first to receive a class color since 1963; first to actually elect a joke ticket team to lead the Undergraduate Council; first to call for a moment of silence (in a protest for social justice) during Primal Scream, the naked pre-exam streak through Harvard Yard. The class, she recalled, experienced “Gagnam Style” firsthand with Psy, and learned from the likes of Toni Morrison, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, and Henry Kissinger.
The class survived a winter that shut Harvard down three times in three weeks, Faust said, tying the number of snow days for the entire twentieth century. Members of the class directed Hamlet at the Loeb, “produced prize-winning theses on subjects ranging from adolescent risk-taking to poison frogs,” and “ignited the City of Boston by taking the Harvard men’s basketball team to the NCAA tournament for four straight years.”
Turning back to the essence of her message, Faust said “you are a class of experienced activists. Activism is, at its core, a way of saying: I don’t like what I see, I may be scared or threatened…, but I’m not going to cower. I’m going to raise my voice, lend my time, and take some risk in attempting to change frightening realities.”
Faust, who has seen both sides of such activism (this spring, she traveled to Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the civil-rights protest march to Montgomery, in which she participated while an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr; during the past year, she has been a target of student and alumni activists who hope to spur Harvard to divest from investments in fossil fuels), reflected on the ways that a liberal-arts education teaches how to acknowledge fear but to “live beyond it,” treating sources of fear as “a problem to be solved with creativity, thought, and daring.”
Socrates, she said, “defined courage as ‘knowing what to fear and what not to fear.’ In other words, courage is a kind of knowledge—a kind of truth. Education doesn’t make us fearless. It teaches us to pause and assess fear—to know what is worth fearing. This is what universities do: when headlines get scary, we battle Ebola in Liberian hospitals and in the genome-sequencing lab. We invent whole new sources of energy, and new ways of harnessing it. When irrational fear keeps problems at a distance, we go to where the trouble is, to understand. This can become a habit, a way of being, what Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis described last fall in Sanders Theater as, and I quote him, ‘getting in the way of trouble.’ If you find yourself living this way,” Faust asserted, “Harvard is partly responsible. Because your education here has taught you that the search for truth requires the capacity to listen and debate openly, to deliberate and weigh evidence, to entertain ambiguity—the habits of mind that make us humane.”
Faust concluded by thanking the class for reminding the larger community that “diversity does not automatically mean inclusion. That we need to work harder to make sure that our ideal of a community of such varied individuals is one in which each of you feels you belong, regardless of your race, your ethnicity, your gender. Regardless of your nationality, your sexual orientation, your financial circumstances. Regardless of whether you are the first or tenth generation in your family to go to college….”
“Carry other hearts in your heart,” she said in closing. “Do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, conducts the baccalaureate service. The ceremony has been a Harvard tradition since the seventeenth century, but now includes readings from the Analects of Confucius, the Hebrew Bible, the Hindu scriptures, the Holy Quran, the New Testament, and the Sikh Sacred Text, as well as the singing of Psalm 78 to the tune “St. Martin’s,” a tradition since at least 1806.
Update 5-27-15: Read President Faust's text, as posted by her office, here.