Photo: Jill Anderson
On a sunny Thursday in Cambridge at a bend in the Charles River, 649 people took measured steps toward changing the world for the better.
The 613 Ed.M. students, 16 Ph.D. students, and 24 Ed.L.D. students of Harvard Graduate School of Education's 2023 class walked into Harvard Yard together, carrying children’s books in a march to the university’s Morning Exercises led by the school’s ceremonial drum. After their degrees were conferred by President Lawrence Bacow, they walked past Harvard’s gates to Longfellow Hall and into Radcliffe Yard to be presented diplomas and certificates in an afternoon ceremony. For those who received honors, Thursday was just the latest step in a journey of lifelong learning and teaching celebrated in a week of events that, for some, serves as the culmination of their Harvard experience.
“Many of you came to HGSE to change the world. So now, as you graduate. How should you get started?” asked HGSE Dean Bridget Terry Long in her commencement address. “Where do you begin when the problems seem immense and growing; and common sense and common decency seem to be on the decline? My answer to you is this: there’s always something you can do. A way you can contribute.”
Long echoed the words of luminaries such as Leo Tolstoy and Harvard alum Amanda Gorman in a speech that urged graduates to take steps toward defiance of those who limit educational opportunities, and to light a world full of challenges for teachers and students.
“You are the light that HGSE contributes to the world, joining together with 30,000 alumni around the world,” said Long. “You are an incredible force for good. Yes, the problems of the world are daunting, but all it takes is one voice. One smile. The lighting of one candle to brighten the world, even when it’s at its darkest.”
Long noted authoritarian challenges to educational freedoms in states like Florida and other politically charged educational landscapes, stressing that the voices of HGSE graduates are “sorely needed” when “education systems are under attack.”
“Educators and education have been dragged to the front lines of the culture wars, and the tactics being used are quite old: Limit information. Share disinformation and reduce opportunities to become educated. This approach harms all students regardless of their race. History is not there for you to like or dislike, it’s there for you to learn from,” said Long. “Let’s be clear: when you erase the history or experience of one student to supposedly protect another, then you are making clear you believe there’s only one type of student worth protecting.”
Long thanked the hard work of her faculty and staff and stressed that, despite the daunting tasks and uncertainty that lay ahead for graduates, their impact will be immeasurable if graduates take on their vocation with love.
“The investments we’ve made in each one of you will have benefits that will multiply, reaching thousands and perhaps even millions. So while it may seem small, the ripple effect of small things can be extraordinary,” said Long. “And even after they’re gone, our mentors and coaches stay with us. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently wrote: ‘The great thing about great men is that, long after their light has dimmed, their deeds still light our way.’”
Harvard’s Commencement events included HGSE’s Convocation on Wednesday, where outstanding community members were recognized for their efforts in and out of the classroom throughout the year. Lecturer Alexis Redding was named the Morningstar Family Teaching Award winner, while Phyllis Strimling Award winner Amanda Leigh Aiken, class marshals, the cohort of Equity and Inclusion Fellows, and Intellectual Contribution Award winners from each master’s program were honored as well.
Convocation featured two student speakers, Ebonée Green, Ed.L.D.’23, and Cole Wilson, Ed.M.’23, as well as remarks by Lecturer Tim McCarthy, who was chosen by students to give the annual faculty address focused on answering the challenges facing educators in an uncertain landscape.
“These are not the best of times. And I know many of you feel stressed out and checked out and burned out, standing as you are, precariously, on the precipice of an unpromised future,” said McCarthy. “The challenge before us right now is to prove to the world that we are part of the solution, not the root of the problem. And this shouldn’t be hard for you. The things I have learned from you have changed me. They have made me a better professor, and a better person. You have much to teach this world as you set out to do that.”
Student speaker Green centered her speech around the importance of dreams, and the rest necessary before getting to the hard work that lay ahead.
“Right here, right now, there are 956 people. Souls in this building. Who were brought here by dreams with an opportunity to make things go right,” said Green. “The world certainly needs new dreams. So come on and join me in this nap. Take a rest with me. Dream with me. And let’s go change the world.”
Convocation speaker Ruth Simmons praised the other speakers and wove an inspiring speech around the challenges students and teachers have faced, past and present, and the courage to work despite “old hatreds” like racism as well as newer problems like disinformation.
“You, more than anybody I can think of, have at your disposal the capacity to shape the future. By embracing education, you’re clutching the lifeline to a sane and sensible future for our children,” said Simmons. “It may well be that we will endure periods of hostility to the notion of education or antipathy toward everything we value as educators. But time will demonstrate that educators play a pivotal role in what the world can be in the future.”
Simmons recalled the struggles of the Jim Crow south and the still-ongoing battles for equity as a rallying cry for graduates to “resist efforts to create a new dark age that inculcates learners and society with self-serving false information” and to follow “a calling above all others.”
“I hope that you will take this oath of office: that you will do your best to exemplify and defend the bedrock values of education: truth, open-mindedness, independence, and rigor of thought and a commitment to the advancement of society,” said Simmons. “If you accept these values and live up to them, you will forever be hopeful, forever strong in your views of what matters, and forever able to heal this nation.”