Reflections on Harvard’s 360th Commencement, May 26, 2011.


by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Today, for the 360th time in its exalted history, a history far older than
the republic itself, Harvard will, with all the colorful paraphernalia of the
Academy, send a goodly percentage of the brightest young people on
earth on their way to kismet.

Some of these people will become heads of state, women too; that is why
the address of Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of the
Republic of Liberia is so important.  It proves that even in territories inclement
towards women, women may rise high indeed.

Some of these people will head corporations and reap billions, some of
which will undoubtedly be given to Harvard in the form of very public generosities.

Some of these people will buck the capitalist trend and found worthy causes
of every kind. The world has need for every one of them and the people who
give up much, the better able to give more.

Others will rise high in the military, in governments of every nation on earth,
in education, science, medicine, the arts… there will even be a movie star or two but,
perhaps, no rap musician. Not, however, because Harvard would not welcome one; it
would. Rappers, however, may demur; it’s a matter of image…. and no people on
earth are as stringent about image as they are.

One more category may well appear: terrorist, revolutionary. Harvard does not
go out seeking such people, but Harvard has helped shape many such. Red
John Reed, Bolshevik, (class of 1910) is buried in the Kremlin wall… a signal honor
for a gentleman of Crimson. Like so many Harvard graduates he rose high, though this
time for a cause most every other Harvard graduate loathed and disdained. John
Reed wouldn’t have cared about that; Harvard graduates are above such trivia.
They know that what they do is important, even if no one else on this planet agrees.
This profound conviction is part of what the graduates take away today… you can
be sure of it. It is one of the best reasons for the very existence of Harvard.

Many of today’s graduates will write about their Harvard experiences; I am one of
them. Most will cherish happy memories and say so, fudging the truth on
which Harvard prides itself and pruning things not quite happy enough. In truth,
their classmates were probably never as bright as they will remember, as bright or
as dedicated. The faculty never as welcoming and helpful as they will recall. And the
university overall not as profoundly influential. But embroidering your Harvard past
is winked at since happy memories beget handsome legacies. And there is no need
to remind so many, and in print, too, that their time here was not as sun-kissed as they
ardently desire it to be. You were young, vibrant, surrounded by possibilities, and you’d
been marked with the most winning brand of all. Under the circumstances, the utmost
joy and contentment are understandable; indeed mandatory.

There will be some of course, but just a handful who will write otherwise, telling, years
from now, of painful isolation, alienation and the persistent thought that they never were, not for a moment, good enough to have gone to Harvard in the first place, that they were a fluke, a sport of nature. Perhaps. But they will write such sentiments in a ringing style, lyric, too, that shows in its careful refinement and clarity another benefit of a Harvard education.

This day, the most important day in the life of virtually every graduate, save only the
day on which they were born, will start early; the ceremony commences in Harvard
Yard at 9:45 a.m., but Harvard Square is awash with the camera-totting hours before,
even from first light. A sign of  the times: persons unable to be present can see it all, and
clearer, on the Web. There is not a one who so watches that does not wish to be
in Cambridge instead… for all that they see more and better than the audience
shaded by the great trees in Tercentenary Theater.

Graduates, at once shy and proud, will move today surrounded by their personal
claques, the lucky ones invited to see and venerate. Proud parents, who often dipped deep to make this happen, have been admonished, several times, to be prompt and organized. Graduates have conflicting feelings about these folks. They are grateful, of course, though never as grateful perhaps as they should be. It would not do to slight them, but, this is the last day, the very last day, they can see their classmates and friends, similarly burdened, as they will never be again: present, accounted for, resoundingly young; friends, colleagues, lovers, too. This recognition, this sadness is palpable. The pull of the golden past, slipping away forever, against the dawning future, ardently desired… but not this day. This is why the tears fall today for this must be a bittersweet moment for all. In these precincts the past and future truly collide today, to roil emotions. Parting is indeed such sweet sorrow… and now they truly know it.

It is now just 5 a.m., the dawn of this day of days is nigh. It is a day of memories,
memories retrieved, memories born. Parents will recall memories unbeckoned
of their beloved graduates and their brief lives. They will have, for themselves alone,
moments poignant and keenly felt, the more so if they had, once upon a time, a Harvard
Commencement of their own. Then Cambridge becomes the best it can be: an ever-
renewing place of reverie and remembrance, a place where you are always welcome,
for you are part of what has shaped this special place.

The trickle of early comers, seeking parking spaces more valued than gold,
will soon grow into serious traffic. Ladies in hats otherwise known only at weddings and
gentlemen in ties they will later shake off as gladly as a noose begin to appear as
do the marked men of the day… the sheriff of the county who will ride in on white
horse to declare the proceedings open; officials in their always ill-fitting cuttaways
and top hats… and of course and always the brightly garbed graduates in mortar
boards they never wear quite right. With their gowns a Rosetta Stone clearly indicating
just where the graduates have been and where they are going, these players gather
together, together to march into the ceremonies where they shall become, so the
University’s president will pronounce, members of the company of educated men and

This is what every graduate has earned… and everyone has come to hear.  And
it is a marvelous thing, not just for those present but for the entire world, soon
to benefit from the skills, dedications, and hard work of this renewed company,
the company we all rely upon so much.

Think of these new members of this company today. They have much to accomplish
and many lives to touch and improve. We must all be glad they have such a day as
this to start them on their way, for they go forward for us all.

Musical note

Every commencement comes alive when the University’s fight song, “Ten
Thousand Men of Harvard”, written by A. Putnam (class of 1918) is played.
Listen and rejoice.

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