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Speak with Sincerity

By Sharon L. Howell

In his “Autobiography,” Benjamin Franklin describes the moment when, at the age of 20, he decided to undertake “the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” His reasoning goes like this: I know what is right and wrong, so I should simply “always do the one and avoid the other.” Easy! Franklin develops a list of virtues to help himself along: beginning with Temperance (“drink not to elevation”), and ending with Humility (“imitate Jesus and Socrates”).

But he soon realizes that he can maintain only one or two of these virtues at a time—tranquility gets in the way of industry, resolution steamrolls moderation, and so on. More often than not, Franklin falls short of the virtues to which he aspires. But, he insists, it is all worth it—there is value in aspiration itself, in effort and belief, and in the lessons of failure.

Those of us charged with instructing and mentoring students at Harvard recognize that a 20-year-old with the sense that good might be done in the world is a powerful and precious thing. And we assemble here some of the most promising 20 year-olds in the world. They arrive ready to form their lists of virtues, and they listen carefully to what we say and do: not just in words at convocation and Commencement, but also in the deeds of our collective daily life.

Because students are watching and listening so closely, the choices Harvard makes about what to say, and how to say it, have the potential to either shore up or undermine our other work.  How do we respond to a recent failure of good governance, or argue against fossil fuel divestment, or time the announcement of an unpopular decision? Very often, we have relied on a kind of vocalizing apparatus: lawyers, communications people, or others who would prefer that nothing ever had to be said at all.  When we do hear a real voice, too often it is trying to say as little as possible.

But what are we here to do, if not to say what matters?

Harvard’s power in the world derives not just from its production of knowledge, but also from the integrity of its voice. A place as big and important as Harvard should have the courage to try and speak not from a calculated distance, but humanly, with real voices aiming for their objects. It should welcome the full chorus and cacophony of those voices whenever it is productive to do so. Because this is where our students—a category that frankly includes us all—learn whether or not to chime in and try to speak the truth also. Part of our mission is to send students into the world to countervail untruth and ignorance wherever they find it, whether in the lab or in the Capitol. If what they learn here, by our example, is to be doubtful of the wisdom of doing that in their own voices, then we have failed them fundamentally.

Is it a little naive to think that if we can just “speak truly,” the world will be better? Perhaps—but I find myself in good company believing it. Our own William James told an audience in 1896: “We want to have a truth; we want to believe that our experiments and studies and discussions must put us in a continually better and better position towards it.” We want to believe, and we want to believe together, which is in some ways the most important point of all. This is a bold and arduous common project, to educate young women and men to lead us bravely in their turn. We will fail at it, perhaps as much as we succeed. But we have to try, and we have to do it out loud.

Halfway down the list of Franklin’s virtues is Sincerity. The starch has gone out of this word for us, in the 21st century, but here is how Franklin glosses it: “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.” If I have a hope for Harvard, for our graduates, and for all of us, it is this: that we should speak more sincerely, recognizing that the earned authority of our voices is our greatest asset. The practice of this humble virtue surely clears the way for all of the others.

Except perhaps Temperance. For that one, you’re on your own.

Sharon L. Howell, Ph.D. ’06, is Allston Burr Resident Dean of Adams House and Lecturer in History and Literature.

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