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“The Truth Shall Set You Free”


John Silvanus Wilson

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

John Silvanus Wilson

Photograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

The Graduate School of Education’s Convocation ceremony on Wednesday afternoon in Radcliffe Yard featured an address by John Silvanus Wilson Jr., M.T.S. ’81, Ed.M. ’82, Ed.D. ’85, on the topic of freedom, from its deep connections to education, to the spirit of activism that has been spreading throughout the country. 

Wilson, formerly president of Morehouse College, a Harvard Overseer, and executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), is now senior adviser to President Drew Faust and her successor, President-elect Lawrence Bacow, charged with implementing the inclusion and belonging report released on March 27 (see He took the role, he told the assembled company, in “the firm belief that Harvard can’t really be Harvard until everybody in this community is free to flourish. So, there is a deep sense in which this freedom message is not just for you”—but is also about the work ahead for the University.

Wilson began by thanking GSE dean James Ryan—in his final Commencement week before departing to become president of the University of Virginia—for making the school stronger and better. And he welcomed incoming dean Bridget Terry Long, quipping that “she will be dean when the Ed School turns 100 in the year 2020, the year of perfect vision. With perfect eyesight she will assess our last century, and with perfect vision she will plan our next.” 

Wilson’s focus, however, was the present. As he told the school’s several hundred degree candidates, “you should feel lucky to be entering the world at such a powerful freedom moment” when “the quest for freedom swirls like the spirit…” and has “caused people to march.”

“Teachers are marching…holding strikes and walkouts for…the freedom to teach without being undermined by basic deficiencies,” he said. Students, beginning with those from Parkland, Florida, are marching because “they want freedom from violence and the threat of violence…. They simply want the freedom to be safe to learn.” Women are marching for “their optimal empowerment and to finally and completely upend a toxic culture that has existed for far too long. They want freedom from the tyranny of silence and the crime of zero accountability around sexual violence, harassment and misogyny,” said Wilson. “Black folk are still marching…of late, just to insist that black lives matter. They are seeking freedom from the scourge of racial bias in criminal justice and throughout American life.”

Looking back and looking forward, Wilson urged the soon-to-be graduates to engage with the “freedom energy” of the moment, in a give and take: “inform it and be informed by it;  inspire it and be inspired by it; elevate it and be elevated by it.” You are bookended by freedom messages, he told students because fifty years ago,“Coretta Scott King spoke in Harvard’s Commencement season and told everybody to ‘Hold high the banner of freedom!’ Tomorrow, an iconic freedom fighter, Georgia Congressman John Lewis—you can trust that he will message in some way about freedom. Please don’t miss your mandate. This is freedom season!”

Wilson went on to make the point that the “education business is the freedom business.” Noting that a third of the class would go on to assume leadership roles, he shared some advice he had received himself when working in the White House: there are only two ways to transform an organization, the woman, an HBCU leader in the White House, told him: either change the people, or change the people.” A week later, he related, she sent him a book, You Can’t Send a Duck to Eagle School. The title summarizes “the most important leadership lesson I have ever received”: that you need the right people to “tap the latent genius in our classrooms, schools, and communities.”

Once you have the right people and strategies, Wilson added, you must establish the right culture. “MIT Sloan’s Ed Schein [Ph.D. ’53] said it best,” he continued: “‘The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.’ Ignore that truth at you own peril, because, as Peter Drucker put it, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast!’” 

Schools, Wilson said, either perpetuate the status quo or develop a culture of transformation, where young people can discover “who they are and why they’re here”—in a culture of freedom.

He described this quest for freedom in intensely personal terms, but schools, he said, can create the culture that allows self-discovery to take place.

He described how his own upbringing took place at the intersection of education and religion. “I was raised by a teacher (Mom) and a preacher (Dad).  This was not always fun. They had me all figured out…all the time, too. As they saw it, if what was wrong with me wasn’t logical, then it was theological. I think that’s why I attended Harvard Ed and Harvard Divinity,” he added. “Seems I’m still trying to find out whether every human dilemma really boils down to stupidity or sin.” 

Speaking from the vantage point of this intersection; from his personal experience working with “troubled black boys over in Roxbury” in the 1980s and 1990s; and from data showing that just half of the 360,000 black boys who start ninth grade in this country complete high school on time—while fewer than 3 percent eventually earn the kinds of grades and scores that attract competitive colleges—Wilson concluded that to retrieve the “stolen potential” of these boys would require unconventional means.

At Morehouse, “to help ignite the freedom fire in our students, we leaned on Mark Twain, who said, ‘The two most important days of your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.’ We urged them to remain open to having your second day. It is the day you find out why you were born; the day you realize your calling in life.”

Wilson described this as a universal concept: “Buddhists and Hindus call it enlightenment or awakening. Karl Jung and Jungian psychologists call it individuation. James Baldwin called it ‘the day my dungeon shook, and my chains fell off.’”

 This type of revelation is rare, he continued. “So few of us experience the freedom of discovering who we are and why we’re here. That can and must change. And we, as educators, must change it.  

“There’s really no mystery about how to do this. We know. True education is personal in the same way that true religion and true freedom are. We need more nurturing environments, where teachers and tutors get inside the lives of students and meet them where they are and deal with them as if they were where they ought to be.

“If you want to know why Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse reading on an eighth-grade level, but graduated ready to excel in BU’s doctoral program, it’s because Morehouse was a nurturing, second-day institution. Education was personal on that campus. People were teaching people and not just subjects.  And you can try real hard, but you cannot do that online!”

Noting that the 32,000 alumni of the GSE reach 15 million students every year in America, he charged the class of 2018, as they “listened to John Lewis tomorrow… to be the new freedom fighters we need so very badly today.  

“The deeper, truer twenty-first-century education we need now will come only if you, as the new freedom fighters, create more second-day institutions, characterized by second-day cultures, and designed to deliberately produce second-day people. And that, my friends, is the truth.”

Wilson summed up with an insight about Harvard: “Because this convocation message has come to you from that intersection of education and religion,” he said, “some of you may have heard it as part speech and part sermon. And for that, I offer no apology. But let me hang out at that intersection just a little longer and close with two quick points—one logical, one theological, both about this great institution.

“Logically, the Ed School in me has led me to review Harvard’s history to discover that in 1643, the seventh year of the life of this remarkable institution, the Overseers met and decreed that we shall have a college seal which shall have upon it one Latin word–VERITAS–meaning ‘Truth.’  

“But theologically, the Divinity School in me leads me to note that in 1643, those Puritans thought of ‘VERITAS’ not simply as truth, but as divine truth. Given that, I am free to add this second-day reminder about the truth of your life…and the truth of all life. Very simply, I suspect those original Harvard Puritans decided to centralize VERITAS, because it says somewhere in a book they held dear”—and Wilson quoted John 8:32—“‘Once you know the truth, the truth shall set you free.’”

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