Information For:

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

News & Events

Education's Critical Role During an Uncertain Time

Dean Bridget Long's remarks for HGSE Commencement 2020.

Dean Long's prepared remarks:

Congratulations again to the class of 2020, HGSE’s Centennial class. You are building on our long history. One hundred years after our founding, HGSE is a vibrant community of dedicated, skillful, and ambitious people with the shared mission of improving the world through education.

And though even a few months ago, we would not have imagined the changes caused by the pandemic, realize that even HGSE’s presence and role today was not imagined at our founding — in fact, anyone from our early years would be shocked at how we have evolved and matured as a school.

The story of HGSE is a story of pivotal decisions, of meeting challenges from within and without, and it is a story of tremendous growth and reinvention. We have changed as our country and world have changed. At a time when universities questioned whether education schools were necessary, HGSE advocated successfully for education to be recognized as a profession in its own right, to be a specialized body of knowledge distinct from other areas of intellectual inquiry. It was people here who to pushed to be inside schools, to be connected to learners, educators, and communities — not just researchers sitting in the ivory tower. It was people here who were courageous enough and bold enough to question the deeply held assumption that only some students could learn. All means all, and our community has demonstrated in hundreds of ways how success is possible regardless of background, ability, or context. And we have broadened views of intelligence and education to include social and emotional learning, moral development, and civic engagement.

I bring up HGSE’s history today to encourage you to look ahead. Graduating classes before you could never have envisioned the change they would help to bring. Certainly, we are living in the midst of tremendous upheaval, which has spurred innovation and new ideas but also exposed long-standing inequities in distressing ways. If the future is what we create, then you, the class of 2020, will surely be important in the determining the pathway ahead for all of us, even if we can’t see that future just yet.

As we reflect on the past several months, our lives have changed in immeasurable ways. Especially when it comes to schooling, the world has seen with new eyes just how essential, and underappreciated, educators are. As Shonda Rhimes famously tweeted: “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” And then there are those of us who might identify with this sentiment from another of my favorite memes. Consider it a note from a parent to their children’s teachers: “You lied.  My kids are not a joy to have a class.”

While humor has been an important way for many of us to sustain ourselves, there have been much greater lessons for society about the important role of education.

As our current circumstances have made clear: schools are more than just physical buildings that provide academic content; educators do more than just stimulate minds; community-based organizations, often interwoven into the activities of our schools and families, are essential to the fabric of our lives; and equity and access to educational opportunity are even more critical in this rapidly changing world. With more than 50 million children in the United States alone out of school for months, the learning loss, especially for those with special needs, has been severe. 

Add to that the fact that millions have gone without regular access to food provided by school lunches, without the safety of adult supervision and afterschool programs, and without reliable internet connectivity. Altogether, the effects of this pandemic could “hobble an entire generation,” as a recent editorial in the New York Times described.

We should take note that the word “education” in Mandarin has two characters. One character means “to teach” and the other “to nurture.”  The two together make the word “education.”  Through this pandemic, many more are seeing clearly that education is not only the foundation for opportunity and growth, but that educators also provide crucial emotional and social support, guide development in numerous ways, and are an integral part of our social safety net.

And we are all coming to terms with the realization that the mark of this pandemic is not temporary — our way of life will not go back to the old normal and these setbacks will not quickly be resolved. As we look to fall and consider the needs of our students, I was recently reminded by a local educator, “It’s not just content gaps that we have to worry about; it’s also emotional gaps.”  

This is a major turning point for education, and we are witnesses to it. Graduates — today, as you transition to the next chapter of your life, I encourage you to tap into your innovative and entrepreneurial spirits and be more than just a spectator. Especially at this moment in history, your contributions could not be needed more. Consider this a call to action, my voice joining the many others who are already working tirelessly to confront the challenges students of all ages are facing, which have only become more urgent. And I know that already includes many of you. 

And as you consider your next steps, let me leave you with three quick words of advice.

(1) The first is: Don’t wait. 

I realize we are all living in a world of great uncertainty and a long list of things that seem beyond our control, but I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes by a writer named Alan Paul: "Life itself is controlled chaos and success depends on navigating it, rather than waiting for things to be perfect.”

I saved this quote several years ago, but it could not be more relevant today. Even under the most imperfect circumstances, you can make a contribution. Even if the challenges seem insurmountable, there are things you can do to help.

Some of you will use this opportunity to invent new things, try out new ideas, and make reforms that have long been needed.  I know each of you is experiencing your own worries, upheavals, and brushes with illness, but even if your contribution at this time is simply a kind word or an offer of assistance to one person, that is still progress. This brings me to my second point.

(2) We need to do this together.

Even though we may be physically apart, let us not be socially distant. During the last several months, I have been incredibly heartened by the ways our community has shown resilience, thoughtfulness, and care, and I am confident we will thrive in our next steps if we continue to work together, joining with colleagues from around the world.

Take note of the fact that the field of education embodies a complicated network of teachers and principals, nonprofits and foundations, government bodies and community-based organizations. Real change — or the idea of collective impact as advanced by John Kania — can happen when people are able to work across silos in pursuit of a common goal. Those silos may be long-standing divides that stand in the way of improving practice, but we should also give fresh thought to new potential partners and collaborations. To name just one example, we should pursue and strengthen ties between healthcare and education, not just in our fight against COVID but because we know that healthy children are better able to learn.

The challenges our students face permeate every part of society, and so it will take working together to make real movement in addressing those issues. As stated in the old African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

And know, even though today marks your graduation, you will always be a part of the HGSE family. You are about to join the nearly 30,000 alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and will be lifelong members of a community like no other. May you always stay connected and find HGSE a source of inspiration, supports, and collaborators.

(3) Finally, my third point is to encourage you to entertain what was previously unimaginable.

This brings me back to HGSE’s Centennial. One hundred years ago do you think our founders would have imagined how much we would have grown? Today we reach across the disciplines, with activity both inside and outside of schools, for students around the world of every profile. Would they have believed that our school chose the first female dean at Harvard, Patricia Graham, or would have an African-American woman as dean right now? To go back 100 years, people would have thought that was impossible. 

As we have recently been shown, this is a time when old assumptions have been thrown out the door. A time when we’ve seen dramatic changes to everyday life none of us would have believed as we welcomed in the new year of 2020. What if this is also a time like no other — when we imagine something new for our students and their families. When the will is finally there to address long-standing problems that can no longer be ignored? Let new ideas combine with evidence on what works and come together in new collaborations, breaking down traditional barriers because we’re all in this together.

In closing, what you are doing is important, and even though this year has taken a dramatic turn, know that your chosen field has become even more important, and what you choose to do can and will make a difference. Whether you choose to work inside or outside of a school, with our youngest learners or our oldest, in the U.S. or abroad, or even in a job outside what most think of as the field of education, you still leave this place prepared and empowered to make a contribution. Students, families, colleagues, leaders, and communities are desperate for solutions. And I am optimistic, because of all of you. 

So graduates of 2020, launch the first year of our second century with skill, partnership, and imagination! And I know those who follow you will look back at this time with pride and thankfulness.