“There ain’t no Superman, nor anyone else in his Justice League,” actor Tom Hanks told Harvard’s newest graduates, but we sure could use some champions right now in the battle for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”
Using metaphors from America’s superhero-obsessed culture, he urged the members of the Class of 2023 to keep “the promise of our promised land,” warning them against indifference that kills truth, endangers the struggle for equality, and which he termed worse than lies, ignorance, and intolerance.
Hanks was the principal speaker at Harvard’s 372nd Commencement, held Thursday in Harvard Yard’s Tercentenary Theatre. The event, brought to order by the tapped staff and traditional call of Peter John Koutoujian, the High Sheriff of Middlesex County, featured lengthy processions by robed students and faculty, speeches, music, prayers, and the conferring of more than 9,000 degrees on newly minted graduates of Harvard College and of the University’s graduate schools.
“Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made, the same option for all grown-ups to make: to be one of three types of Americans — those who embrace liberty for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent — and only the first do the work of creating a more perfect union,” Hanks said. “In the never-ending battle you have all officially joined as of today, the difference is in how truly you believe, in how vociferously you promote, in how tightly you hold onto the truth that is self-evident: that of course we are all created equally yet differently, and of course we are all in this together.”
Honorary doctorates also went to six recipients: Hanks; Jennifer Doudna, who co-discovered the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9; Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Katalin Karikó, mRNA researcher whose work underlies two leading COVID-19 vaccines; Hugo Morales, who founded the National Latino Public Radio Network; and historian David Levering Lewis, whose honorary diploma came with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to mark a doubly special day for him.
The day was also special for Harvard President Larry Bacow. It was his last commencement before he steps down at the end of June after five years of leading the University through often trying, pandemic-marked times. On the dais with him was Claudine Gay, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who will take over as president on July 1.
Bacow received a standing ovation after delivering the ceremony’s closing remarks. In them, he said students should recognize that their victories are not theirs alone but achieved with the support of friends and families, as well as the invisible hands that built and ran institutions and organizations that have taught and nurtured them along the way. It’s time, he said, for the graduates to become nurturers themselves, because with the good fortune of their education comes responsibility. And, he said, if they see imperfection in the world, there’s only one way to fix it.
“I have never met anyone who thinks the world we live in is perfect,” Bacow said. “This statement is equally true of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and those across the political spectrum. So, if you believe this world is imperfect, the only way it will get better is if good people like you work to repair it. This is now your responsibility.”
In his remarks, Hanks reflected that sentiment, saying the ongoing struggle for truth and equality for all — the American Way — falls now to the graduates. He pointed out that the battle is ongoing not because the current generation failed to fight it, but because the battle will never be won and yet must be waged.
“We are all in a cage match, mixed martial arts battle royale with agents of intolerance and braying incompetence, the malevolent equals to Imperial stormtroopers, Lex Luther, and Loki. And we could use a superhero right now,” Hanks said.
Our superpowers, though, are of a more mundane variety, he said. Some people know how to fix things; some can care for trying children without losing affection for them; some understand physics or economics or how to survive on poverty wages; and some can graduate from college despite pandemic lockdowns and remote teaching. These are all achievements, he said, that are stellar even though performed by humans. And it’s those humans who are tasked with the job of defending truth and fighting for equality.
“We all get to complain about The Man, and we all have debts we gotta pay, and we’re all entitled to a day off to lay about. But the work that is called for is the construction of our ‘more perfect union,’” Hanks said. “That job will never, ever be completed, one that requires rigorous attention and unfading wherewithal and all hands. The work is the keeping of the promises of our promised land, the practice of decency, the protection of freedom, and the promotion of liberty for all, with no exceptions. That takes a lot of work done on multiple job sites every single day, and you can call each of them a battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”