Theda Skocpol, Victor Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology, urged the 2022 Phi Beta Kappa Class to confront “the troubles of our time” and fight to defend the public good during PBK Literary Exercises Tuesday morning at Sanders Theatre.
The world, said Skocpol, is threatened by armed conflict, attacks on truth and science, and the “erosion of the very bedrocks that have supported inclusive civil society and democratic institutions in the United States and beyond.”
Skocpol encouraged students to follow their hearts in pursuit of family and careers, but also to honor the legacies of W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen Keller, and Maud Wood Park, and other Harvard graduates who met “the public challenges of their times.”
“Ready or not, and whether we like it or not, this is a critical juncture in U.S. and world history,” she said. “Basic democratic principles are under manipulative and at times violent attack, with the spearpoint directed against competitive, fair, and honestly counted elections to install public officials and hold them accountable.
“As new Phi Beta Kappans, you have a special obligation to recognize and meet what Martin Luther King Jr. once called ‘the fierce urgency of now.’ High academic achievement and accolades from such an excellent college as this are not a prize; they are a calling to do one’s utmost to serve the common good.”
Skocpol reminded the audience that social progress requires “unswerving persistence,” including efforts to build coalitions that can overcome disagreements. Each of us has the power to set change in motion, she said. Sometimes that involves reaching across divides.
“Get out of your professional bubbles, hear what others have to say in their own words about community matters, including people who harbor views you cannot share,” Skocpol said. “Fight all necessary battles with unswerving commitment and energy. But also find various ways to listen to others and interact as an equal with a broad range of fellow citizens and human beings.”