We praise the choice of Oprah as Commencement speaker
The mystery of Commencement was resolved. Some were ecstatic, and others disgruntled. The more imaginative amongst us voiced hope that diplomas would be bestowed upon the graduating class in histrionic fashion, perhaps along with a fleet of brand new sport cars. Oprah Winfrey, the University announced, was chosen to deliver this year’s Commencement address.
Shortly thereafter, former Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis expressed concerns that a “major purveyor of pseudoscience” would be awarded an honorary Harvard degree. Despite criticisms from Lewis and others, we at the Crimson unequivocally applaud the recognition that will be given to someone who is in many ways a role model and whose work has done much to advance causes that are dear to the Harvard community.
By and large, Lewis’s argument that Oprah is a popularizer of pseudoscience is not an entirely inaccurate one. That this should be relevant to the choice of her as Harvard’s Commencement speaker, however, we contest. True, Oprah has often hosted at her record-breaking talk show persons of questionable opinions about medicine and self-improvement, exposing millions of her viewers to pseudoscientific arguments. She has given space to guests who have advocated such viewpoints as the legitimacy of unconventional hormone therapies to combat the effects of menopause or proposed anti-vaccination stances not backed by cogent public health arguments. Yet such episodes are irrelevant to the occasion of Commencement and are overshadowed by many of Oprah’s other experiences and achievements. Her extraordinary story of determination in the face of adversity, her progress in advancing the status of women and members of ethnic minorities, and her role in abating prejudice against LGBTQ Americans all make her more than qualified to speak on life’s challenges, success, and living a meaningful life in front of Harvard’s graduating class.
Most of us are probably familiar with Oprah’s success story: Born in poverty to a single teenage mother, she overcame the trauma of rape and early pregnancy, went on to become the first and only black female billionaire in the world, and appears repeatedly on Time magazine’s list of most influential people. As early as the 1980s, she defended gay, lesbian, and transgender rights in the United States, harnessing her incredible influence to further the quest for civil rights of millions of LGBTQ Americans.
In light of the enormous impact that Oprah has had on the lives of millions and the role that she plays in public life, that she has popularized views that are at odds with mainstream academia seems an awfully myopic criticism. The University would indeed be hard-pressed to identify any Commencement speaker whose values have never come into conflict with objective scholarship. If one of the goals of a Harvard education is to interact with and learn from those who are different from us, then Oprah, whose work is decidedly non-academic but similarly powerful and valuable, certainly fits the bill. We look forward to hear her talk of confidence, courage, and hardship with the same strength that has characterized her throughout her career as an entertainer.