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Questions and Answers

By Jarret A. Zafran, None

As members of the Class of 2009 preparing to leave Harvard, it is fairly natural for us to reflect upon our four years within these walls. We ask whether it was worth the money and the time. What is the purpose of a good education? How do we hope to apply the knowledge we have gained here?

In recent weeks, America—or at least its punditocracy—has also reflected upon the early days of the Obama administration, and asked similar questions. What have we learned? What can we expect for the future?

I have always felt that the mark of a good education is its capacity to raise more questions than it answers. Harvard opens our minds, broadens our outlook, and inspires our curiosity. Where once we might have been content to ask and answer a question such as, “Does global warming exist?”, today we question the merits of so-called “clean coal,” debate the costs of a gas tax vs. a cap-and-trade system, and view “organic” labels with healthy skepticism. Each broad question engenders a myriad of other smaller yet similarly critical ones.

After our years here, many of us actually take solace in the Socrates maxim: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” In writing a 147-page thesis, I still barely scratched the surface of my field of study. Yet the very fact that I realize this is oddly comforting: Perhaps this place has taught me well.

However, there is another equally important facet to this definition of wisdom. My hope for the future of this class is that when we do arrive at an answer we believe is correct, we will have the courage to fight tooth-and-nail to defend it. Whether some of us believe abortion is wrong or gay marriage is right, and whether an employer makes sexist remarks or a school restricts students’ freedom of speech, we should never be afraid to use our voice and our privileged position to make a change or, at the very least, make some noise.

For our presidents, achieving the right balance between asking questions and defending answers has been crucial. President William J. Clinton was incredibly bright and intellectually curious. There was not a decision he made without first considering numerous questions. Yet, when it came down to questions of moral fortitude, perhaps where public opinion was opposed or indifferent to an issue, Clinton did not defend his answers. Too often, on questions such as whether gays should serve openly in the military or whether the U.S. should intervene in Rwanda, he surrendered to the prevailing political winds, to the detriment of our nation.

The pendulum between questions and answers swung the other way when President George W. Bush took office. This was not an intellectually curious man (though not dumb), and consequently it was not surprising that when a small circle of advisors advocated a certain course of action, Bush did not seek opposing viewpoints or consider all of the questions necessary to arrive at the right answer. When he felt he had an answer, however, Bush defended that answer with great conviction. He was “the decider,” and while you might not have agreed with where he stood, you always knew where that was.

Clinton and Bush represent, to a certain extent, extremes on a continuum. It is the hope of many in this nation to see President Barack H. Obama occupy a middle ground, embodying a healthy marriage of curiosity and conviction. The administration’s decision to make sweeping changes to the federal budget suggested a vigorous defense of an answer he gave on the campaign trail. But other moves, such as the recent nomination of Judge Sonia M. Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, whom most legal analysts do not consider a liberal intellectual heavyweight to counter Justice Antonin G. Scalia, or the decision to delay repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, suggest Clintonian moderation. I retain great hopes for the next four (or eight) years of this White House. Alexander Hamilton famously said, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything,” and I believe that Obama will continue to stand up and to stand for the right answers.

Yet I hold even higher hopes for the ability of this year’s graduating class to pause, reflect, and consider the world around us. The great, albeit fictional, President Josiah Bartlet once described his job saying, “Every once in a while there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong…other than that, there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country….” It is a testament to our education that we do understand nuance, embrace complexity, and savor intellectual challenge.

We will ask the right questions and we will vigorously defend the right answers, and in so doing, we will fulfill Harvard’s promise. Congratulations to my fellow classmates and good luck!

Jarret A. Zafran ’09 is a Social Studies concentrator in Leverett House. He is the former president of the Harvard College Democrats.

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