With the sun shining down on Radcliffe Yard and smiles beaming from every face at Thursday’s commencement ceremony, it was impossible not to feel confident that this year’s Harvard Graduate School of Education graduating class will go on to change the world.
“By coming to HGSE, you have signaled that your response to societal inequities and injustices is through education,” said Dean James Ryan in his commencement address. “I’m surely biased, but I applaud your choice, as I am convinced that education is the only long-term solution to these long-term problems.”
Throughout the ceremony, applause was ubiquitous for Ryan, for faculty and staff, and especially for HGSE’s 719 graduates: 33 from the Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) Program, 24 from the Doctor of Education Leadership (Ed.L.D.) Program, 11 from the Certificate of Advanced Study (C.A.S.) in Counseling Program, and 651 from the Master of Education (Ed.M.) Program.
Ryan began his speech with a moment of silence for Yan Yang, the HGSE doctoral candidate who passed away earlier in the year. He also acknowledged Professor Robert Kegan, a long-time faculty member in adult learning and professional development who is retiring this year.
After an overview of HGSE’s eventful year, from the kick-off of the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program to visits from Senator Elizabeth Warren, author Sandra Boynton, and transgender homecoming queen Landon Patterson, Ryan commended the students for all they have accomplished in their time on Appian Way: organizing the How Are You Campaign and the Alumni of Color Conference; establishing the HGSE running club; and embarking on service and learning trips to Haiti, Egypt, and Singapore.
Ryan then turned to the declared theme of his speech: questions. In offering the graduates three big suggestions about asking and listening to questions, Ryan gave them a path to solving the long-term inequities and injustices plaguing our world.
Ryan’s first suggestion to the graduates was that they “cultivate the art of asking good questions,” because, he explained, good answers will only come from good questions. “With your newly minted Harvard degree, you might think you are now expected to have all of the answers, and others might think the same,” he said. “I would urge you to resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and to spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask.”
For his second suggestion, Ryan touched on his idea of being a “generous listener,” which he first communicated to the graduates nine months ago at orientation. “You, as listeners, have within you the power to turn most bad questions into good ones, provided that you listen carefully and generously,” he said.
Ryan’s final suggestion to the graduates was to remember the “five truly essential questions that you should regularly ask yourself and others.”
“‘Wait, what?’ is at the root of all understanding,” explained Ryan. “‘I wonder [why or if]?’ is at the heart of all curiosity. ‘Couldn’t we at least?’ is at the beginning of all progress. ‘How can I help?’ is at the base of all good relationships. And ‘what really matters?’ gets you to the heart of life.”
With a reference to Raymond Carver’s poem “Late Fragments,” Ryan concluded his speech by advising the graduates that if they regularly ask these five questions, they will not only be prepared to tackle tough problems, but will also feel beloved and content with what they have been able to accomplish — and will be able to help others, especially students, feel the same.
Before the presentation of diplomas, Aditi Chakravarty, Ed.M.’16, Benjamin Leddy, Ed.M.’16, and Danielle Williams, Ed.M.’16, performed Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen” which includes the lines, “Children may not obey, but children will listen/Children will look to you for which way to turn/To learn what to be.”
From Ryan’s remarks and from the admiring words of many other speakers over the past several days, it is clear that this year’s HGSE graduates have the skills, fortitude, and compassion needed to lead the next generation.
Watch the ceremony below: