Applause and a standing ovation greeted Biden as he took the podium in Tercentenary Theatre Wednesday afternoon. Biden began with quips aimed at the students who spoke before him, before joking about staples of Harvard student life—Scorpion Bowls at Hong Kong Restaurant, the post-finals stench of Lamont Library, and the Harvard Meme Page—to the audience’s delight.
“Me and the Dean in one place—it’s time to break the internet,” Biden cracked, alluding to his and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana’s online stardom. He then paused to snap a selfie with Khurana.
Biden’s speech quickly turned political, however, as he evoked the 2016 presidential election.
“We saw how if you play on the fears, appeal to the baser instincts rather than our better angels, you can still reap some temporary and powerful political success,” he said in a reference to President Donald Trump. “I imagine for many of you, seeing this unfold was incredibly disorienting and disheartening.”
Biden drew parallels between the current moment and the time of his own college graduation in the 1960s. He recalled the turmoil and disillusionment surrounding the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was set to speak at the College’s first Class Day in 1968 before he was killed in April of that year.
Under such circumstances, Biden said, it is tempting to disengage from public life. He pointed to a recent Crimson survey of graduating seniors that revealed that 37 percent of the Class of 2017 who had considered taking a job in the federal government changed their minds after the election.
“Forgive me, but I think that’s the wrong reaction. You have an obligation to get engaged,” Biden said. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that disengaging from the system that you think is broken will hold you harmless from the system’s failures. You can’t cut yourself off from the consequences of a failed political system, Goldman Sachs or not.”
His voice rising, Biden put forward an optimistic vision of a more daring America—a country that, with the new generation of college graduates at its helm, would lead the world.
“I’m so tired of both political parties talking about incrementalism. America has always thought big and boldly. What has happened to us?” he asked to resounding applause.
“In order to fulfill your destiny, Class of ’17, it’s absolutely essential for you to engage in the world around you,” Biden told graduating seniors. “You’re the most engaged, tolerant, talented generation in our history. But none of that will matter if you don’t get engaged in the public affairs of this nation.”
To Biden, engaging specifically means entering politics. Invoking Plato, Biden told forthcoming graduates, “‘The penalty good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves.’ So you have to engage, you have to be involved even with this dirty business of politics. You have to, for your own safety’s sake. And I have no doubt you will, because you must.”
Student speeches, both humorous and somber, preceded Biden’s address. Harvard orators Jonathan S. Roberts ’17 and Bessie X. Zhang ’17 reminded classmates of the privilege inherent in a Harvard diploma and the Freshman Outdoor program and power of silence, respectively. As Ivy Orators, Declan P. Garvey ’17 jested about the failures of Harvard students and Rachel J. Stromberg ’17 poked fun at a number of aspects of Harvard life.
First and Second Class Marshals Riya N. Patel ’17 and Katherine F.G. Wu ’17 delivered opening and closing remarks, and Khurana and incoming Harvard Alumni Association president Susan Morris Novick ’85 also addressed the crowd. Blockmates of Haley Rue ’17, who died in 2014, read excerpts of her writing as a tribute to Rue. Student vocalists closed the event with the class of 2017’s ode, sung to the tune of “Fair Harvard.”
Facebook founder and Harvard dropout Mark E. Zuckerberg will speak at the 366th Commencement ceremony tomorrow afternoon.—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.