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A Message to the Class of 2019

Jonathan L. Walton Inauguration
Jonathan L. Walton a Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church.

The one constant in life is change. Graduation season captures this truism, as it simultaneously marks an end and a beginning. Commencement recognizes your incredible accomplishments and inaugurates a new season of opportunities.

Of course, we must acknowledge that immediately following the euphoria of Thursday’s celebration awaits the anxiety of the unknown. For some of you, this is the point that real “adulting” begins. Welcome to a world of full-time employment, rent, auto insurance, and (take a deep breath here) a monthly bill for internet access!

Life comes at you fast. As you enter different fields of human endeavor, your ethical decisions and personal choices will reverberate with social significance in ways that you may not yet realize. No longer will you have the training wheels of campus culture to help balance you along life’s journey. So there are a couple of moral guideposts that I pray you might recognize as you venture out beyond the gates of Harvard Yard.

First, do not confuse responsibility with resignation. Society will lead you to believe that to become a responsible adult is to renounce the hopes, dreams, and ideals that have propelled you thus far. Some will mock what they regard as your “youthful idealism.”

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“With responsibility comes sobriety,” others will say. Unfortunately, this says more about our culture than it does about you. A culture in decay is one that persecutes the poets and demonizes the dreamers.

Nevertheless, continue to dream, Class of 2019. Over the past four years, I’ve witnessed your incredible openness, inspiring moral imaginations, and amazing artistry. Though at times uncomfortable and inconvenient, you availed yourself to opportunities and ideas that stretched you intellectually and spiritually. Classmates and cultures that were once foreign became familiar. Similarly, you developed an appreciation for perspectives previously considered incomprehensible. You have proven that responsibility can take the language of poetry, not mundane prose.

Second, do not equate intellectual maturity with upward social mobility. Many regard the latter as evidence of the former: To “grow up” and mature is to advance in your chosen field or career path. Not true. There are times in life that your intellectual maturity will counter your professional ascendancy. A willingness to critique the status quo and ask difficult questions are the the signs of intellectual maturity. Such acts may land you in a difficult place, as you dare to challenge the corporate and institutional apparatuses that too often determine and facilitate our professional aspirations. Moral courage and fire are often extinguished by a lofty rank and title.

Your class seems to get this already. Maybe this is why you refused to make peace with existing conditions at Harvard. You challenged gender, racial, and class hierarchies, opposed BGLTQ exclusion, and confronted religious bigotry among student groups and organizations. You organized for change by standing up against police violence on our campus and in our country. You cared for families living in “sanctuary” in the city of Cambridge. You used your educational privilege to expand opportunities for school-aged children from Somerville to South Africa. You pushed Harvard to divest from companies that profit from the deterioration of our environment and mass imprisonment of the most vulnerable. And you transformed the classic narratives of Antigone, Desdemona, and Du Bois into powerful social commentaries for the contemporary moment.

The worst thing you could do is to leave these dimensions of the self behind as you move into “adulthood.” Being a responsible, morally engaged citizen means that you refuse to resign your hopes and dreams of a more beautiful and just world. Being an intellectually mature professional means that you dare to eschew morally dubious and ethically questionable practices that might otherwise put you on the fast-track of “success.”

You have truly inspired me — with each artistic production, campus sit-in, and act of service, you challenged a culture that defines creativity and generosity as “idealism,” and resignation and cynicism as “truth.” With each articulated dream and expressed hope, you countered a culture that frames dissent as “immaturity,” and the status quo as “reality.” This was your gift to Harvard. Make it your gift to the world.

So go in strength, love, and courage, Class of 2019. And good luck with that internet, television and phone bundle!

Jonathan L. Walton is a Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church.

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