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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Last week, Harvard freshmen adopted for the first time a pledge to act with “integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” This year’s freshman class was asked to use the Dean’s traditional commencement message to our graduates (“to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society”) as a kind of moral compass for their Harvard education, thus opening their experience the way we have historically closed it.
In recent days, the pledge has generated a bit of controversy, with some suggesting that a pledge of any kind subverts intellectual freedom and is contrary to Harvard tradition. Others have argued that the public display of a framed pledge with student signatures might pressure students to act against their own wishes. In particular, some have questioned why Harvard is in the business of promoting kindness, which the current version of the pledge asserts should hold “a place on par with intellectual attainment.”
These discussions about the new Freshman pledge have come to be configured as a debate between intellectual freedom and the pursuit of truth on the one hand, and civility and empathy on the other. But we think this is a false dichotomy. The pursuit of knowledge is enhanced, not hindered, by a commitment to live respectfully and to understand the perspectives of others.
Indeed, this ability to assume the perspective of other people—empathy—is thought to be a key feature of academic and professional success. Psychologists relatedly speak of a “theory of mind”: the ability to recognize that one’s observations, beliefs and desires are distinct from those of other people. A person who bombastically hijacks a class discussion or rips down a sign in support of a group with which he or she disagrees could be said to be unaware of the experiences and feelings of others.
A healthy university should absolutely be unafraid to engage in the rough and tumble of intellectual discourse, about any topic whatsoever. We don’t expect to treat people with kid gloves. But we shouldn’t allow our commitment to intellectual integrity as an abstraction to undermine our commitment to intellectual integrity in reality. While some invoke inapt metaphors of “group think” and “mind control” in the setting of discussing the meaning and utility of a freshman pledge, we would argue that a civil society is synonymous with an open society. In our experience as House Masters and educators, it is very hard for students to engage in learning in an atmosphere of disrespect.
But to be clear: This is not a simple matter of hurt feelings; 21st century learning requires levels of communication, collaboration, and cross-disciplinary creativity that were not conceived of even a decade ago. If we intend our graduates to serve and advance society, surely we can ask them to put their own interests in a broader context while at Harvard College.
This year at Pforzheimer House, we have invited the incoming class of 2014 to help us generate their vision of an open society. We are collecting words and phrases that capture the community to which they aspire. We are not deluded in thinking that this simple activity will magically transform our community or magically improve every individual’s behavior. But the notion of building a community centered on, and committed to, truth is a singular task, one that people have struggled with since we began to organize ourselves into societies. The purpose of the freshmen pledge, and the conversations it was meant to stimulate among freshman, was to help in this age-old task. We think we should have more, not fewer, discussions about how to create a more civil society.
We can have legitimate discussion about how best to implement the freshman pledge. Indeed, the present circumstances present a good opportunity to model how such discussions might optimally take place. New initiatives often have to be retooled after a trial run. But we stand absolutely firm in our commitment to encourage students—indeed, to expect students—to approach their Harvard careers with an open, thoughtful, and generous mind. Too often, our students can forget, in the business of their own lives, that their individual search for truth depends on the generosity and hard work of other people: fellow students, families, professors, administrators, tutors and proctors, coaches, dining hall and custodial staff, the list goes on—even to include the generations of previous scholars and countless prior supporters of our institution.
We live in an increasingly interconnected world and depend on one another. A freshman pledge can assert this simple truth, asking students to embrace it. Our strength as a university depends on it.
Erika L. Christakis ’86 and Nicholas A. Christakis are Co-Masters of Pforzheimer House.
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