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Op Eds

The Transformative Power of Reason

By Courtesy of Rose Lincoln/Harvard University
By Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Contributing Opinion Writer
Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Chair of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and a Professor of History at Harvard University.

I imagine that many of you aspire to create meaningful change — whether through activism, public service, innovation in business, scientific advances, or art. No matter how great your ambitions, when one considers all that needs fixing in our world, it can be daunting. And as newly minted graduates, the path forward can be difficult to discern.

So I offer an insight that I hope might inform your successes and buoy you as you navigate inevitable disappointments. The very fact that you are graduating from Harvard means that you have already acquired one of the most powerful tools available to any of us: reason.

By reason, I mean several things. I mean the ability to unearth facts through deep research, to discern the truth through clear-eyed analysis of those facts, and to finally deploy this truth through thoughtful argumentation.

Most of you will recognize this process — of research, analysis, and argumentation — as a cornerstone of your academic life here at Harvard. With these skills — and by devoting the time and care necessary to apply them — you have earned your degree. Your grit, your engagement with facts, and your commitment to reason: these are the things I want you to be proud of. These habits of mind will serve you well throughout life.

We live in an era that tends to reward volume and certainty. Those who speak loudly often convey great passion. Passion is a powerful force: It has driven my commitment to access and opportunity in and beyond higher education. But it is not enough. In addition to passion, you need reason.

Perhaps now more than ever, as we try to make sense of a flood of information bombarding us across countless platforms, we must commit ourselves to the painstaking work of research, of analysis, of argumentation — work that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to clever soundbites, but which is critical to inquiry, and to the pursuit of change.

By training, I am a legal scholar and historian of the civil rights movement. Among the many leaders I admire, and whose lives I see as instructive, are those who did the intellectual work required for social change. Consider, for example, Constance Baker Motley. Do you recognize her name? Perhaps not, but make no mistake: she was the civil rights queen. She began working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1945, while still a law student, and she was a crucial figure dismantling Jim Crow laws. She helped litigate Brown v. Board of Education. She fought for Martin Luther King Jr.’s right to march in Birmingham. And in 1966, she achieved an historic first: President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, making her the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. When Ketanji Brown Jackson ’92 accepted President Biden’s nomination to the Supreme Court, she said, “Today, I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders,” calling Motley’s life and career “a true inspiration to me as I have pursued this professional path.”

Motley was, first and foremost, a woman who used reason to shape history. And she was not alone. The greatest moments of change in the 20th century were the result of tireless, hard intellectual work. Sometimes that work is thankless, but there are no shortcuts.

As you begin the next chapter in your lives, do not discount the transformative power of your ability to reason. One of the greatest threats to reason is basing our conclusions on insufficient facts, or allowing them to be shaped unduly by our preferences, prejudices, and preconceptions. As W.E.B. Du Bois, another changemaker whom I greatly admire, once wrote: “somebody in each era must make clear the facts with utter disregard to his own wish and desire and belief.”

Rely on reason, and you will not need to shout down your critics. With reason, there is no need to belittle, to attack. There is no need to grandstand.

A commitment to reason and to deep research in the quest for justice motivated me as I chaired the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. During nearly three years of doing the work required to prepare our report and recommendations, I encountered skepticism about my commitment to a lengthy and thorough process of research. I believed that our research would have to speak for itself if we hoped to spark meaningful change. I think it does.

The research laid the groundwork for our recommendations, and for the establishment of a legacy of slavery fund that will support redress. Of course, there is no monetary sum that could ever remedy the harms of slavery and its legacies. More must be done.

I also realize that some of you — with reason at your disposal — may disagree with the particulars of the committee’s recommendations. I welcome this kind of engagement, and believe it will strengthen the critical work that lies ahead for us. This is another virtue of reason: it gives us grounds on which to engage, even when we disagree. I hope you will take that lesson with you, too.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin is the Dean of Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Chair of the Presidential Initiative on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery, the Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School, and a Professor of History at Harvard University.

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