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Convocation 2013: Student Speaker Phil Lee's Remarks

Graduating students, distinguished guests, faculty and staff, friends and family:

I am here to talk about tradition — specifically, the tradition that we are becoming a part of by graduating from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (or as we know it, HGSE).  The tradition I speak is one of struggle and resistance. Struggle against the vicious legacy of white supremacy.

Resistance against homophobia.

Struggle against gender discrimination.

Resistance against massive class inequality and other forms of dehumanization.

All in a larger effort to increase educational quality and access for everyone.

We believe that education is essential to participate fully in American life and as global citizens. We believe that regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court holds, education is a fundamental right. We believe that we are fighting against a long history of educational inequality and exclusion. And public opinion is not always on our side. But regardless of the difficulties we face, we choose to fight. We refuse to give up.

This is the HGSE tradition that I speak. And T.S. Eliot reminds us that tradition is not something you inherit. If you want it, you must obtain it through great labor.

So why do we fight so hard?  In the face of seemingly insurmountable problems, why have we convinced ourselves that we must go on? Why do feel that we must do something in our work and our day-to-day lives to make society a better place?

I think I have an idea why. Let me tell you the answer by sharing a story from my life.

Before I started the doctoral program at HGSE, I was an assistant director of admissions at Harvard Law School for four years. As part of my job, I would go on the road and talk to students all over the country about going to Harvard. I encountered four types of people who wanted to attend this grand institution.

First, I would meet people who wanted to attend Harvard because they wanted to become rich. And they would tell me that they’re not talking “spiritually rich.” They would say that they were talking “racks on racks” rich. This was a common sentiment. But for me, this is not the strongest motivation to go to Harvard.

Second, I met people who wanted to attend Harvard because they wanted to become powerful. They wanted to influence society in profound ways and that in and of itself was the justification for applying to a place like Harvard. Again, I don’t find this the most compelling reason to attend.

Third, I met people who wanted to obtain prestige. They would say that with a Harvard degree, they would be branded geniuses wherever they went without even trying. And this would be justification for all the hard work they’ve done up to this point. Another common sentiment, but not the best reason to attend.

Fourth, I would meet some people who wanted to attend Harvard because of the most compelling reason of all — love.

Let me tell you what I mean. After I engaged in some conversation with these folks in the fourth category, they would all say that they had people in their lives who believed in them when they were feeling worthless. It was a parent, teacher, relative, family friend, spiritual or religious adviser — someone who took them by the hand and told them that they were somebody.

And now that they had this foundation of love and support, they wanted to pay it forward by attending Harvard and developing the necessary skills to combat injustice in the world.  Now that’s love.

How does this answer the original question about why we fight so hard? When I speak to HGSE students, I am talking to people with motivation number four. You come here recognizing that you stand on the shoulders of people who helped you get where you are.  You recognize that you can never pay them back, but you can pay it forward to the next kid who comes along needing some help. You are here because you want to make a difference in the world by helping as many people as possible have access to high quality, dare I say it — even transformational, educational experiences. You are here because you are deeply committed to social justice.

So why do we fight so hard? Cornel West reminds us that justice is what love looks like in public.

This is why we fight. This is why we struggle. This is why we care. Justice is what love looks like in public.

Welcome to the tradition.  


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