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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
When I first came to Harvard as a freshman, I expected the next four years to be a personally transformative, intellectual experience. I expected my knowledge to expand, my beliefs to be challenged, and my worldview to be molded. I expected to sit in classes with brilliant professors and brilliant students, engaging in the kinds of intellectual exchanges I had heard about from friends and seen in countless films. In short, I expected what most students anticipate when they drive through Johnston Gate for the first time as freshmen: an education.
In many ways, my experience at Harvard over the past four years has lived up to those expectations. I did take classes with incredible professors and students, and I gained a tremendous amount of new knowledge and information. But when I think about how I will emerge from Harvard, I realize that I’ve gained much more than an education—I’ve been inspired, and that’s what I’ll be most grateful for as I receive my diploma on Commencement day.
The Latin root of education means “to draw out,” while the equivalent root for inspire means “to breathe into.” The difference is illustrative. Education brings out knowledge that students didn’t even know they had. That’s the basis of the Socratic method: students have a wealth of knowledge, and by questioning them about it carefully, they can answer their own inquiries. As Socrates might have told us, then, the goal of education is to “know thyself” as thoroughly as possible, and to embrace all of the learning that comes with self-understanding.
To inspire students is in some ways a more ambitious goal. It requires not only drawing out what they already have, but also raising them to a new level—not only bringing out hidden knowledge, but also breathing in new life. The late Apple chief executive officer Steven P. Jobs—himself an inspiration to many—summed up the meaning of inspiration when he explained his aversion to market research: “It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Creating an innovative product is not merely only about satisfying customers’ wants, but also forcing them to question those wants, raising their expectations, and crafting original tools that push the boundaries of market needs. Jobs was suggesting that we should not be held back by peoples’ articulable desires but should take risks to help shape those desires. That’s not just a definition of inspiration—it’s also a definition of leadership.
If the motto of education is to “know thyself,” then the motto of inspiration is to “know others”—to know whether customers will come to accept a market innovation, or to know how far a student can be pushed in the process of intellectual discovery and value formation. The abiding lesson of my four years at Harvard is that education and inspiration form two sides of the same coin—that the goal of knowing myself is not to engage in the abstract pursuit of self-knowledge, but to define my own worldview so that I can come to empathize more with my peers. Knowing thyself is essential to knowing others.
I learned this lesson at the Institute of Politics, where I worked with a group whose mission was to “bridge the gap” between politics and public service—to take political values that I had formed in the classroom and work to impart them by engaging in direct service. I learned this lesson at the Philips Brooks House Association, where my undergraduate research on special education allowed me to pinpoint how I could best help students in a special-needs classroom. I learned this lesson in my house on campus, where I met with a tutor who helped link my academic interest in law with internship opportunities that would expose me to the work of legal practice. And I learned this lesson while writing a thesis during my senior year, when my advisor encouraged me to develop a topic that not only contributed to the academic field in which I was writing—but also to the lives of the individuals on whom my topic touched.
At Harvard, I learned to value learning for the sake of learning, but I learned as well to value it for something more—for its ability to shape others’ lives. Harvard challenged me to question my beliefs and assumptions, and in doing so, it forced me to think more concretely about how I wanted to put those beliefs into practice. My experiences during the past four years drew knowledge out of me, but they instilled too in me something new—a stronger commitment to self-improvement and public service than I had started with. At Harvard, I found not only an education, but also a source of inspiration—and for that, I will always be grateful.
Peter M. Bozzo ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.
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