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The Quest for Second-Day Freedom

The prepared remarks of Convocation speaker John Silvanus Wilson.

Thank you, Dean Ryan…thank you for making HGSE stronger and better!

One can have no sweeter legacy than that!

Congratulations to Alumnus Douglas Wood!  Thank you for all of your good work!

And welcome Dean Bridget Terry Long!  She will be our Dean when the Ed School turns 100 in the year 2020, the year of perfect vision! With perfect eyesight she will assess our last century, and with perfect vision she will plan our next!

And now, congratulations to this HGSE graduating class of 2018!

My Perspective

I sat in a gathering like this back in 1985, got married two weeks later, and then traveled up the street to launch my career with a 16-year stay at MIT. My wife and I also lived as heads of a residence hall on campus. Being around students so much, we often found reason to selectively share this truism

Perspective is worth 100 points of IQ!

No matter how paralyzed or confounded you may feel by your academic or social dilemma, if you find a way to adjust your perspective, you can actually elevate or surge to a unique kind of brilliance and creativity.  You can convert your perceived shackles into wings, and your bondage into freedom. Freedom.

Berkeley Neuroscientist, George Lakoff calls “freedom” the central idea in American life, the most important idea in American history, and, of late, “the most contested word in American political discourse.” [Whose Freedom?]

Lakoff thinks we don’t know what freedom is anymore. I think he’s right, but since I think he understates his case, I want to use this time to highlight three perspectives on the quest for freedom. This is a memo to you as you set out to heal the world, working beside 32,000 other proud HGSE alums!

I shold also note that I have assumed a new role as Senior Advisor to the Harvard President in the firm belief that Harvard can’t really be Harvard until everybody in this community is free to flourish. So, there is a deep sense in which this freedom message is not just for you, but it’s about that, too!

Freedom and this Moment

First, the quest for freedom swirls like the spirit or mandate of this moment.

You should feel lucky to be entering the world at such a powerful freedom moment. To the extent that the universe signals to us what time it is, it has been signaling, whispering and shouting to you all year. And it has caused people to march!

TEACHERS are marching in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and elsewhere. Holding strikes and walkouts for better pay and classrooms.

All for the FREEDOM to teach without being undermined by basic deficiencies.

STUDENTS are marching, too! The Parkland students have already galvanized the nation, and now the Santa Fe, Texas students will join the front of the same march!

They want FREEDOM from violence and the threat of violence…

They simply want the FREEDOM to be safe to learn!

WOMEN are marching, too. They are marching for their optimal empowerment and to finally and completely upend a toxic culture that has existed for far too long.

They want FREEDOM from the tyranny of silence and the crime of zero accountability around sexual violence, harassment and misogyny.

BLACK FOLK are still marching…of late, just to insist that black lives matter.

They are seeking FREEDOM from the scourge of racial bias in criminal justice and throughout American life.

James Baldwin said, “impatience and rage are what yield progress.”

This October, thousands of impatient and angry people will march in D.C. – because they feel 2.5 million addicted and 218 dying every single day is enough!

They want FREEDOM from big pharma making billions infesting America with opioids!

This is a freedom moment. Embrace that freedom energy as you move into the world!

More than merely embrace it, I encourage you to find a way to:

INFORM IT and be informed by it;

INSPIRE IT and be inspired by it;

ELEVATE IT and be elevated by it!

You emerge from HGSE as millions of Americans strive for a new kind of freedom.

You also emerge from this place poetically bookended by freedom messaging. Fifty years ago, freedom fighter Coretta Scott King spoke in Harvard’s commencement season and told graduates to “hold high the banner of freedom!” Tomorrow, iconic freedom fighter, Georgia Congressman John Lewis will share a message essentially about freedom, as well. Please don’t miss your mandate. This is freedom season!

Freedom and Educational Leadership

Second perspective: the quest for freedom gestates in our educational work and leadership, and it is struggling to be born. Too few of our leaders know that if you are in the education business, you are in the freedom business!

I know roughly a third of you will now assume leadership roles. So I want to share the best leadership advice I ever received. It came from an HBCU leader who was effectively elevating her institution. She visited me in my White House HBCU office, and I asked, “What’s your secret?” She said, they’re only two ways to transform an organization — either change the people, or change the people.

Now, like you, I had heard that before, so I knew she meant, either make a change in the people you have, or change from the people you have to new people.

As we discussed it, and as I argued for being careful to give the people you inherit every opportunity to grow and develop, she warned, “The longer you take to assess which change is best, the more likely it is that you will fail miserably!”

We debated. She gave up…or so I thought. Within a week, she sent me a book in the mail, the title of which summarizes the most important leadership lesson I have ever received. The book is entitled You Can’t Send a Duck to Eagle School.

Translation: some folk are so allergic to change, there is no curriculum, counseling, or professional development that can convert them into being reliable forces for good for your institution. Hence, you can’t send a duck…duck in, duck out!

Now, why is this so critical? Because, as leaders, you will need the right people to use new educational strategies to tap the latent genius in our classrooms, schools and communities.

And once you have the right people and strategies, you must establish the right culture. So then, leaders, educators, it’s all about culture!

MIT Sloan’s Ed Schein said it best: “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture.” Ignore that truth at you own peril.

Peter Drucker agreed. He said, it’s because “culture eats strategy for breakfast!”

Graduates, whatever new strategies, theories or interventions have excited you here at HGSE, if you leave here and are not first focused on cultural fit, you are bound to fail. That sounds a little harsh, so let me soften it: You will fall flat on your face!

Well, what kind of culture should we create? A culture of freedom!

The most important idea I was exposed to here at HGSE back in 1984 was generated by a Brazilian educator/philosopher named Paulo Freire. I had just studied liberation theology at the Divinity School, so a logical next step at the Ed School was liberation pedagogy, or, as Freire called it, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Freire could’ve been observing today’s world, when he said we need to reset the relationships between teacher, student and society.

And when he defined education in the context of transformation, he called it “the practice of freedom.” Freire said schools either have a culture of conformity to the status quo or a culture of transformation and freedom.

Graduates, we need you lead the way in creating more cultures of freedom in this country and in this world. Do that because those environments are where people, young and old, can best discover who they are and why they’re here.

And the people who know who they are and why they’re here…they are the freest people in the world. That very truth caused Ralph Ellison to declare, “when I discover who I am, then I’ll be free.”

And that brings me to my final perspective on the quest for freedom.

Freedom and Your Second Day

The quest for freedom swirls in this moment, it is in the womb of all our educational work and leadership, and, finally, I want you to see that the quest for freedom innately dwells in every human soul, and perhaps in the soul of life itself.

I have lived my entire life at the intersection of education and religion. I was raised by a teacher (Mom) and a preacher (Dad). This was not always fun. They had me all figured out…all the time, too! As they saw it, if what was wrong with me wasn’t logical, then it had to theological!

I think that’s why I attended Harvard Ed and Harvard Divinity. Seems I’m still trying to find out whether every human dilemma really boils down to stupidity or sin!

I want to speak from that intersection of education and religion on this final point.

While at MIT back in the 1980s and 1990s, I worked with troubled black boys over in Roxbury. The stolen potential stuck with me, as did my frustration in trying to help recover it. So, later, while presiding at Morehouse, we ordered up some pipeline data that clarified the challenge in crystal clear terms.

Every year roughly 360,000 black boys start ninth grade. You already know that only half complete high school on time, but you probably didn’t know that less than three percent of those ninth-graders eventually earn the kinds of grades and scores that attract competitive colleges. Less than three percent!  

Those data and those Roxbury experiences led us to the conclusion that we need some unconventional ways to reach the most neglected among us.

And we discovered that the best way to show that we care is to awaken them as the authors of their own freedom. So, to prove concept, we began trying it at Morehouse.  To help ignite the freedom fire in our students, we leaned on Mark Twain, who said,

The two most important days of your life are the day you’re born

and the day you find out why.

We urged them to remain open to having your second day. It is the day you find out why you were born; the day you realize your calling in life; the day you are awakened to the purpose you were born knowing.

This second-day power is inside of you.

Hence, our work: education from the Latin, educare — to draw out or bring forth.

And this second-day concept is universal.

Buddhists and Hindus call it enlightenment or awakening.

Karl Jung and Jungian Psychologists call it individuation.

James Baldwin called it “the day my dungeon shook, and my chains fell off.”

My grandfather would say, “son, in the church we call that Damascus!”

My father would insist that your second day ain’t nothin’ but your second birth!

My mother and grandmother would explain it as the reason why the old folks sang,

“I’m so glad, I got my religion…in time!”

David Brooks wrote about it in the New York Times as your “agency moment!”

Rick Warren made millions with a book about it called, The Purpose-Driven Life!

Mystic Theologian, Howard Thurman says it can happen inside of each human being when you finally “hear the sound of the genuine.”

Carol Dweck’s growth mindset is pretty evident in the morning of your second day!

Angela Duckworth’s grit becomes obvious later that afternoon!

Whatever you call it…it is the day when the truth of your life finally connects with the truth of all life!

And when that happens, you are as free as it is humanly possible to be.

But this is so, so rare!

Demographers tell us that, in the history of this planet, 108 billion humans have ever been born. That’s how many have had their first day. Regarding the 7.6 billion humans alive right now, the odds are only a handful are true second-day people.

So few of us experience the freedom of discovering who we are and why we’re here.  

That can and must change. And we, as educators, must change it!

There is no mystery about how to do this. We know. True education is personal in the same way that true religion and true freedom are. We need more nurturing environments, where teachers and tutors get inside the lives of students and meet them where they are and deal with them as if they were where they ought to be.

If you want to know why Martin Luther King Jr. entered Morehouse reading on an eighth-grade level, but graduated ready to excel in BU’s doctoral program, it’s because Morehouse was a nurturing, second-day institution! Education was personal on that campus.  People were teaching people and not just subjects. And you can try real hard, but you cannot do that online!

So my simple charge to you, HGSE 2018, especially as you listen to John Lewis tomorrow, is to be the new freedom fighters we need so very badly today.

The deeper, truer 21st-century education we need now will come only if you, as the new freedom fighters, create more second-day institutions, characterized by second-day cultures, and designed to deliberately produce second-day people.

You want to hear something pretty cool?

Together, all HGSE graduates reach 15 million students every year in America. 

We have the power right now to be and produce second-day freedom fighters!

As Toni Morrison said, “Your real job is that, if you are free, you need to free somebody else!”

And that, my friends, is the truth!

Freedom and Veritas

And so I close. Because this convocation message has come to you from that intersection of education and religion, some of you may have heard it as part speech and part sermon. And for that, I offer no apology.

That is who I am and that is why I’m here!

But let me hang out at that intersection just a little longer and close with two quick points — one logical, one theological, both about this great institution.

Logically, the Ed School in me led me to review Harvard’s history to discover that in 1643, the seventh year of the life of this remarkable institution, the Overseers met and decreed that we shall have a college seal and upon it shall be one Latin word — VERITAS — meaning “Truth.”

But theologically? Theologically, the Divinity School in me leads me to note that those Puritans in 1643 thought of “VERITAS” not simply as truth, but as divine truth.

So, given that, I am free to add this second-day reminder about the truth of your life…and the truth of all life.

Very simply, I suspect those original Harvard Puritans decided to centralize VERITAS, because somewhere in a book they held dear, it says this:

Once you know the truth, the truth shall set you free!

[John 8:32]

THANK YOU, GOD BLESS YOU, AND GOD BLESS HGSE!