The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Needby Peter J. Gomes
The author of the New York Times bestseller The Good Book champions the recovery of the Western moral tradition.See more details below
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The author of the New York Times bestseller The Good Book champions the recovery of the Western moral tradition.
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Harvard Yard is never more grand than it is on Commencement Day. Beneath its shading elms, thirty thousand proud parents, friends, and pumped-up, soon-to-be graduates sit in the glow of unmitigated mutual self-congratulation. On the platform in front of the towering portico of the University's Memorial Church, dedicated to the Harvard dead of America's twentieth-century wars, sit the great and the good, which includes faculty from all over the world, resplendent in academic regalia; candidates for honorary degrees and the University's most favored guests of the day; and the vaguely familiar faces of those who actually run the place, the members of the governing boards, the deans, and the administrators. Harvard Commencement is arguably America's oldest continuing public ceremony, doing business since 1642 in essentially the same form.
In June 2001, in the midst of this heady mix of pomp and circumstance, the undergraduate speaker, Seth Moulton, rose and, doffing his cap, making his ceremonial bow to the president, and squaring his feet at the microphone, began his five-minute oration. Unlike most American colleges, Harvard does not have to endure a major address at the time it gives out its degrees, and thus the only speeches are those given by three students, one speech of which is in Latin and thus mercifully inaccessible to all but the seniors andfaculty who have been provided a translation. Our young orator could be expected to touch upon the usual pieties: students helping one another through the trials of college life, the sense of joy and relief at going out into the "real world," and the greatness of Harvard and, by implication, its newest graduates. It became clear early on, however, that this young orator was not proposing to rest content with the conventional wisdom of Commencement Day.
After invoking a litany of Harvard greats: John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen Keller, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, he asked what they all had in common, and then answered his own question. "Dead," he said. "They are all dead. The University now belongs to us, as do the times. What will we do with them?" Earlier generations had been summoned from the Commencement platform to lives of conflict and responsibility. The grandparents of many seniors -- the much-celebrated "Greatest Generation" -- had grown up in the Great Depression and responded to the demands of World War II and Korea. The parents of many present on this day had found themselves engaged in the war in or about Vietnam, and for many others of that era there had been struggles for civil rights and women's rights and the peace movement. Our orator essentially asked his classmates: What will be our call to greatness, our summons to nobility? In this season of endless prosperity and self-interest, is there anything that will require the best of what we have to offer? Is there any cause great or good enough to provoke goodness and greatness in us?
As with much discourse, the questions were better than the answers, and our young speaker received a polite but not enthusiastic response to his eloquence. The alumni magazine, in fact, took so little notice of the speech that neither it nor the speaker was mentioned in its major news and feature accounts of Commencement. The question of a call to nobility, however, touched a nerve among many of the young present that morning.
My own observation had long been that students were becoming increasingly restive about the moral dimension of their education. Certainly they appreciated the opportunity provided by study at a great university, and most of them had done reasonably well at their tasks and had had some fun into the bargain. Nearly all of them had interesting futures upon which to embark as soon as they left Cambridge, which included going on to graduate and professional schools, taking up foreign fellowships and travel or coveted entry-level positions with New York consultancy or financial houses, or even a little unprogrammed R and R; as one student pointed out to me, "My parents have had me on this college track since I was in day care, and now, after twenty-two years, I'd like a little time to myself."
Noble thoughts would appear to be far away from the minds of this indulged and indulgent generation, yet many conversations over recent years have told me otherwise. More and more students are asking questions about the moral use of their lives and their education, and about their value, when value questions about education used to be rigorously utilitarian. "How much is my degree worth," the students used to ask, "and how much will it get me of this world's goods?" It is not because of the intrinsic intellectual merit of the field of economics that most undergraduates have chosen to major in that subject over the past decade. The primacy of economics, the so-called dismal science, is acute everywhere, and particularly so at Harvard, where the last three Commencement speakers have included such economic superstars as Amartya Sen, Alan Greenspan, and Robert Rubin and where the new president, Lawrence H. Summers, who served briefly as Secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration, is an economist by profession. The value questions now, however, which were once tied to potential net worth, increasingly have to do with matters of moral value, public and private virtue, and a sense of a fit vocation for making a good life and not just a good living.
Our student orator that Commencement Day was my student and is now my friend, and over the course of his college career we had many conversations about the large questions of value, virtue, worth, and vocation and what, if anything...The Good Life. Copyright © by Peter Gomes. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Peter J. Gomes has been minister of Harvard University's Memorial Church since 1974, when he was appointed Pusey Minister of the church, and serves as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. An American Baptist minister, he was named one of America's top preachers by Time magazine. He is the recipient of thirty-three honorary degrees and an Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel College, the University of Cambridge, England, where the Gomes Lectureship is established in his name.
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