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Commencement 2013: Dean McCartney's Remarks

CommencementDedicated to "D Group" — the best senior leadership team in higher education.

Graduates, today is your day! All of us here applaud you, the class of 2013.

Graduates, many people have helped you to arrive at this special moment in your lives. Your parents, grandparents, partners, friends, and others are cheering you on today, as they have throughout your time here. Graduates, I invite you to thank the many people who have supported your studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

And I notice that many of the graduates have brought their children with them. I invite all the children to comment on today's ceremony in whatever way they see fit! This is a school of education, after all!

There are 350 staff members who have supported you, and many of them are volunteer Commencement staff today – they are the folks wearing white polo shirts. Graduates, I invite you to thank the assistant deans, program coordinators, librarians, the Enrollment and Student Services team, the Operations staff, and more.

Let's give a special thanks to the Office of Student Affairs, which has planned and hosted Commencement Week for all of us.

There are 74 faculty members who have taught and mentored you. I invite you to thank the faculty.

There are two faculty who are retiring this year. I ask them to stand so we can pay tribute to their many contributions to our community: John Collins and Bob Schwartz.

Today is a day of celebration – of your passion for learning and your commitment to serve others as educators. Commencement is a ritual that honors all that you have accomplished. And what a ritual it is! The regalia, the flags and banners, the music, and the speeches. Take it all in and enjoy this moment.

To the 660 Ed.M. graduates, the 13 C.A.S. graduates, the 21 Ed.L.D. graduates, and the 50 Ed.D. graduates: You are now alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You are now a member of a community like no other I know. You will take sustenance from this place, for it will serve as your intellectual home now and always. All of us here on Appian Way will take pride as we learn about the impact of your work in the years to come.

For the eighth time, I have the honor of addressing this community in my role as dean. Today, I will begin by sharing an allegory, credited to Lau-tzu (lau-tsuh), the Chinese philosopher. I came across this story in a book five or six years ago, and it has changed the way I view events in my life. The story is called, "The Tale of the Fortunate Farmer."

The story goes that one day the farmer's only horse runs away. His neighbor hears the news and comes over to commiserate. "I hear that you lost your horse. That is bad news and bad luck."

The farmer replies, "Good news, bad news, who knows?"

The next day, the farmer's horse returns home with several wild horses, and the farmer manages to corral them all.

His neighbor can't believe it. He decides to come over and congratulate the farmer.

"This is such good news," the neighbor says.

The farmer replies, "Good news, bad news, who knows?"

The next day the farmer's son decides to ride one of the wild horses to break it in. When the horse bucks, the son falls and breaks his leg.

Upon hearing the news, the neighbor visits to offer condolences. "This is such a sad thing!" he exclaims. "Your son has broken his leg. This is bad news."

The farmer again replies, "Good news, bad news, who knows?"

On the following day soldiers arrive in town to commandeer an army. They take all the able-bodied men, but because the farmer's son has a broken leg, he cannot go and is spared.

This story has many interpretations. For some, it means that nothing is good or bad, and that we should reserve judgment. For others, it signifies that we have the ability to construct an event as good or bad. For me, it mean that one can always choose happiness, always choose optimism, always choose goodness.

I wish I had known about the Fortunate Farmer in 1998. That year I was recruited for a job that I really wanted but didn't get. I took this failure hard. One year later, Catherine Snow chaired a search committee for a scholar in early childhood development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. That search resulted in two appointments, including mine. After 13 wonderful years at this school, I can say without hesitation that my rejection in 1998 was very good news indeed. Challenge is a universal life experience. But I have learned that the short story is never the final story. Many others have learned this lesson as well—like Sandra Day O'Connor.

In 1952, she graduated from Stanford Law School. She applied for positions at 40 law firms. All rejected her because she is a woman. O'Connor declined a paid position as a legal secretary so that she could work as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, California with no salary and no office. Twenty-nine years later, President Ronald Reagan nominated her to be the first female justice on the Supreme Court.

In 1985, Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he co-founded. He later said that this was the best thing that could have ever happened to him, because it began one of the most creative periods of his life.

In 2000, Barack Obama challenged Bobby Rush for his seat in the US House of Representatives. Obama lost by a 2-to-1 margin. A campaign consultant later said that it was like Obama hadn't lost at all, because he had gained tremendous experience, made political allies, and increased his name recognition. Four years later, Obama ran for U.S. Senate. You know the rest of the story.

I hope that The Tale of the Fortunate Farmer will change you as it has changed me. Perhaps you will think about the farmer the next time you don't get what you want – or what you think you want. Perhaps his story will make you reflect about what is truly good for you. Perhaps it will bring you peace when you experience events as bad and keep you humble during those you experience as good.

It's an easy prediction to make that you will reflect on your experience here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as good news. I know this because alumni tell me how much this place continues to mean to them long after they have gone. One alumnus, who works elsewhere at Harvard, told me how wistful he feels whenever he finds himself walking down Appian Way. I know I will feel the same when I return here. Like this alumnus, I love this school and this community beyond reason.

Thank you.