Harvard President Drew Faust shared final words of wisdom with the Class of 2009 Tuesday (June 2), sending them into a newly uncertain world with assurances that their liberal arts education gives them the ability to improvise in changing times.
Faust delivered the annual Baccalaureate Address Tuesday afternoon in the Memorial Church to cap-and-gown-clad graduating seniors. The Baccalaureate Service is an annual pre-Commencement rite, consisting of prayers, hymns, and the president’s farewell address to the graduating class.
“Remember that improvising in the face of change is exactly what your liberal arts education has prepared you to do,” Faust said. “The opportunity to renew our commitments and remap our lives is a privilege given only to some generations. And this time it’s not just a possibility, it’s a necessity.”
Almost as old as Harvard itself, the service dates back to the first Commencement in 1642, and gives Harvard officials and clergy a chance to address the senior class before the more scripted events of Commencement itself on Thursday.
The service, conducted by the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, featured readings from Confucius, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity.
Gomes described the service as “the beginning of the end” for the graduates, explaining that the Baccalaureate Service kicks off days of ceremonies and events that culminate with Thursday’s Commencement.
The graduating seniors lined up in the Old Yard shortly before 2 p.m. They stepped off to the pealing of the Memorial Church’s bells, walking past the John Harvard Statue, into Tercentenary Theatre, and then into the Memorial Church. They passed Gomes at the top of the stairs outside the church doors as he urged them inside, exchanging quips and personal greetings.
Faust’s address was the service’s centerpiece. She observed that the world “shifted” in 2009, a year that was ushered in with President Obama’s promising inauguration even as the times became more uncertain, with financial upheaval and pandemic concerns.
Faust joked about the impact of the financial crisis at Harvard, saying that in the spirit of the times, she would cut her Baccalaureate address by 30 percent, and that, by graduating this spring, the seniors would leave with their right to eat a hot breakfast intact.
She also said that Harvard’s emphasis on a liberal education is designed for times such as these.
“We have insisted that the best education is the one that cultivates habits of mind, an analytic spirit, a capacity to judge and question that will equip you to adapt to any circumstance or take any vocational direction,” Faust said. “When did such principles better suit circumstances than now?”
Faust urged graduating seniors to follow their hearts and improvise, saying that though we dislike uncertainty, uncertain times provide opportunity for both personal and professional growth. Citing writer Joan Didion, Faust defined an improvised life as “that magical crossroads of rigor and ease, structure and freedom, reason and intuition.” She also cited jazz great Charlie Parker, who said, “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that … and just play.”
Uncertainty and improvisation are important even in fields known for precision, such as physics and medicine, Faust said. And in the arts, improvisation is a spontaneous expression based on structure and research.
“The world needs good improvisers. President Obama has called this moment in our history ‘a season of renewal and reinvention.’ It is also an affirmation of just how much education matters, of how much you, as educated citizens, matter,” Faust said.
Xiao Wang, a graduating senior from Leverett House, said she enjoyed the way the service incorporated the class’s religious diversity. Though her plans to work at a Boston law firm after graduation make her future less uncertain than that of some classmates, she agreed with Faust that a liberal arts education provides great flexibility. Wang came into Harvard as a pre-med concentrator and now has future plans for law school.
Serena Wolf, a graduating senior from Mather House, said Faust’s speech hit home, echoing the concern Wolf and her classmates share about finding work after graduation.
“All of us are extremely nervous about graduating, especially those of us who are unemployed, including myself,” said Wolf, a sociology concentrator. “She did a really great job of not only inspiring us but also making us feel comfortable with our graduation and moving into the world.”
Faust ended her speech with reflections on her own commencement, in 1968. Students in the late 1960s and early 1970s graduated at a time when dramatic social change seemed possible. That promise was lost, but has returned today, Faust said, urging graduates to seize their opportunity.
“Keep mastering your instruments. Keep mastering the music. Keep saying ‘yes’ to your fellow improvisers,” Faust said. “And come back from time to time and let us know of your progress. There is no group to whom I would rather entrust this task.”