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Harvard Professor and Ethicist Urges Scholarship, Public Service
Chittagong, Bangladesh
20, May, 2017

The James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University Danielle Allen gave a moving speech to celebrate the Fifth Commencement Ceremony of Asian University for Women on May 20, 2017.

Please click the below image to view Professor Allen’s full speech. A full transcript of the speech is below.

 

James Bryant Conant University Professor of Harvard University Danielle Allen

The Company of Scholars

Danielle Allen

Asian University of Women Graduation Speech

May 2017

“I speak to you from half way around the world to welcome you into the ancient company of scholars, the collegium of educated women and men. This is a community that spans the globe and stretches back across millennia.

You’ve worked tirelessly to reach this point. Although you have classmates and teachers, in many ways for each of you the journey has probably also been solitary. You have mastered challenging problem sets and complex texts. You have been asked to synthesize material from economics, the natural sciences, and political philosophy. You have been required to develop analytical purchase on contemporary world affairs. Each of you has been obliged to share your opinions and judgments through text and speech with a frequency you had probably not previously experienced. Congratulations on climbing this great personal mountain! And welcome, again, to the company of scholars.

This uncountable family of educated women and men stretches back to antiquity. I think of Sappho, the poet. She lived on a Greek island and wrote some of the earliest lyrical verse about love and jealousy, beauty, loneliness, and age. The metrical precision of her verse reveals fine workmanship and time spent perfecting her forms of personal expression.

I think of Mary Wollstonecraft and Marie Curie. Wollstonecraft wrote a famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman and helped launch a political and social revolution. Marie Curie, physicist and chemist, was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the first person and only woman, to win the Prize twice. With her work on radioactivity, she revolutionized medical science, and helped lay the foundation for the contemporary transformation of the health sciences.

I think of Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics, in 2009, and helped revive the urgently necessary field of political economy.

I think of Mowmita Basak, one of the first graduates of Asian University for Women, who went on to earn a Master’s degree at the University of Bradford in the UK and who then returned to Bangladesh to help convince factory owners to support AUW’s new Pathways for Promise program.

The roads ahead of you will bring many challenges—personal and professional. Life is full of contingency and unpredictability. Yet your challenges will also be distinctive because you have been called to leadership. On account of your education, people will look to you for vision and direction. They will ask you to apply your learning to the problems of the day. You will have to analyze new problems with tools that you learned by practicing them on old ones. You will have to find resources of flexibility, resilience, and imagination.

But there is also one other distinctive challenge that you will experience.  I would like to focus on that one today.

You will have to work out how to be a member of two communities at once: the community from which you’ve come–your family, or village, or town–and the community that you join today, the company of scholars.

How can any of us be true to both communities at once? Learning can introduce distance between scholars and loved ones. I suspect you know this already. Perhaps your home community never even thought that you should go to school, yet you’ve come anyway. You have set yourself apart. If we refer to an issue with a reference to John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek or discuss rates of carbon emission and changes in the thickness of sea ice, will our families have any interest? Or will we and our loved ones lose contact with one another?

Here is the solution to this dilemma. We must put our scholarship, our learning, our expertise toward service on behalf of the communities from which we’ve come. What will bring our communities peace, prosperity, health, empowerment, and human fulfillment? To answer these questions, we must always listen and learn from people in our home villages, towns, and neighborhoods. Only they can tell us their deepest fears and highest hopes. Only if we hitch up our expertise to what our families and extended networks of kin and neighbors know can we develop into the leaders we have the potential to be. We can be in both our communities—the company of our villages and the company of educated women and men—by fusing the learning from each place together, by seeking ourselves to serve as a bridge or transit.

It is obvious, of course, how doctors and lawyers and scientists and politicians can serve their communities of origin. After all, doctors heal and lawyers secure rights and justice. Scientists transform our economies and infrastructure. Politicians build our communities of meaning. But what about the poets? What about the scholars themselves and learning as such? Can we also serve through art and through exemplifying commitments to intellectual growth? The secret to service is not that it be, strictly speaking, instrumental or utilitarian, but that our professional choices be guided by the following question:

How can I bring good into the world for the village from which I come, for the place where I was born, for the town or neighborhood where I grew up? How can I exemplify values of learning, intelligence, and inquiry? How can I model a commitment to truth so as to bring good into my family’s world and to the world’s human family? These are the questions each of us must ask every day.

To ask you to consider serving in this way, with this seriousness of purpose, is to propose a great burden for you. But such is what it means to be called to lead. You already understand the pure joy of learning and of cutting your own path through the world. You have already felt the reward of clarifying your thoughts and developing an understanding of what the world is and a vision for what it can be. You have already tasted the early fruits, the pure fruits, of intellectual and social leadership. So now I also ask you to remember the responsibility that comes with the gifts that you have received.

For all the seriousness of my message, though, above all I want to celebrate you. You have accomplished something spectacular.

May your onward journey be filled with light and love. May you be the bearers of learning and truth.”