Campus & Community

Rhetors are revved up and ready to roll

5 min read

A Latin spin on ‘Star Wars,’ the Marshall Plan, and the advice ‘follow your passion’ mark this year’s talks

Before long, Charles Joseph McNamara ’07 will be with Teach For America in a rural Mississippi high school.

Daniel J. Wilner ’07, a Rhodes Scholar, will be in the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Oxford.

And Richard Crowder M.P.A. ’07 will resume his British diplomatic career with a posting in Brussels.

But today, the three men share the geography of the Harvard Commencement, as well as a common task: delivering the traditional student orations at Morning Exercises to an audience estimated at 32,000.

McNamara, who will deliver the Latin oration, is a Lowell House classics concentrator from Grayling, Mich. — population 2,000, “slightly larger than my graduating class,” he said.

The Latin oration dates back to Harvard’s first Commencement in 1642, but McNamara will not strike a solemn or historic tone. He’ll draw a comparison between the Harvard experience and a legendary futuristic film series peopled by professorial Yodas and unhygienic Chewbaccas. (Hint: Can you say “Death Star” in Latin?)

Wilner, a Kirkland House philosophy concentrator from Montreal, will use his skills as an actor (among many roles at Harvard, he played Hamlet) to add some declaratory drama to the undergraduate English oration. Look for a message about the crisis and joy of making choices, in a world that for Harvard graduates seems so full of options. What to be, or not to be?

Crowder, the father of two and a midcareer diplomat with the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will take a serious tack, summoning up the ghosts of history that he said inform a modern need for countries and people to listen to one another, and so arrive at collaborative peace.

His theme was inspired by the Ralph Waldo Emerson journal entry engraved at Harvard Yard’s Meyer Gate, which memorializes the 1836 Harvard Jubilee. “Cambridge at any time,” it says in part, “is full of ghosts.”

At Commencement, “we’re all thinking about the people in our backgrounds, living or dead, who are guiding us,” said Crowder, whose inspiration to join the foreign service was his two grandfathers — one English and one Irish — who served in World War I.

Today’s ceremonial occasion is also visited by a shared ghost, said Crowder. It was at Harvard Commencement 60 years ago that Gen. George C. Marshall — then U.S. secretary of state — outlined the European-aid program that came to be known as the Marshall Plan. Crowder said Marshall’s vision is an “apt and powerful” model of what diplomacy should be and too seldom is — an exercise in discovering “the things that bind us together.”

Marshall had the foresight to recognize one of “those moments in history, like 1946-47, when the direction of events really does hang in the balance,” said Crowder, who studied the period in a John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG) course on American politics and leadership taught by William Kristol. “Leadership, it seems to me, is about seeing such moments, and then guiding a collective response to them.”

Taking a year off in the midst of a fast-track diplomatic career reconfirmed for Crowder the rightness of his career choice. His Harvard interlude (for a master’s in public administration) also reconfirmed to him “the power of listening,” another theme of his oration. It was inspired in part by Ronald Heifetz’s KSG leadership class, where the Oxford-educated Crowder often found himself having to confront — in the nationalities of his classmates — the contentious realities of Great Britain’s colonial past.

It is the future, not the past, that informs Wilner’s undergraduate English oration. “It can be extremely difficult to make choices when faced with so many exciting options,” he said of the world after Harvard. “One solution is to find your passions.”

Wilner’s own passions have a wide span: acting, directing, philosophy of the mind, moral psychology, child psychiatry, mental health — and how the last two issues intersect with education. “There are a lot of interesting and exciting things,” said Wilner in describing the latitude of choice as a universal puzzle for graduating seniors. “The question is: What is true to you?”

Along the way, his oration will “hit some lofty tones and chords,” he said, but at the same time, “I still want it to be conversational.”

McNamara’s Latinate foray into the “Star Wars” theme will not be conversational; he acknowledges that “to 98 percent of the people listening, Latin is alien.” But the oration will engender some conversation. “Bella Stellaria” (“Star Wars”) may gain some bar-bet currency, along with “Mortifera Stella.” (Yes — “Death Star.”)

“I don’t even like ‘Star Wars’ that much,” said McNamara, a onetime mathematics concentrator who got hooked on the classics by taking ancient Greek as a freshman. But inviting Yoda and Chewbacca into Harvard Yard is a way to encourage students to lighten up.

“The value of my speech is to treat Harvard a little more playfully,” said McNamara, who turned 22 yesterday (June 6). “People here and abroad treat Harvard as this paragon of intellectualism and higher education — and that may be true. But Harvard can be a fun place.”

There’s another message to the Latin oration, said McNamara, who spent an intensive eight weeks last summer with other Harvard students, reading and conversing in Latin with one of the secretaries to the pope at the Vatican. “Latin is a very human language, and we can all learn it.”

He quoted the Vatican secretary the Harvard group spent time with, Reginald Foster: “Latin didn’t fall from the sky in a golden box.”