Failure and Imagination

June is here again… time for graduations and weddings.  Thinking about our fiftieth reunion coming up this weekend, I started looking at commencement addresses. I don’t even remember who spoke at McMaster fifty years ago, but I wondered what platitudes of encouragement are being handed out to today’s grads as they enter a brutal employment market.

There are literally dozens of commencement addresses on YouTube… everyone from Obama and Bill Gates, to comedians and local celebrities.

Imagine my delight to discover both the video and text of  J.K.Rowlings’ famous speech at Harvard in 2008. She is just the fifth woman since 1950 to speak at Harvard, although not the first female British novelist. Lady Barbara Ward Jackson was first in 1957. The other women were Benazir Bhutto, former Irish president Mary Robinson, former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, and US congresswoman Barbara Jordan. Other speakers have included John F Kennedy, Nobel Prize-winning author Solzhenitsyn, and the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I.

The announcement of Rowling’s selection was not received particularly well at Harvard. Giving the rationale for her selection, the Dean emphasised while introducing the author, “No one in our time has done more to inspire young people to… read”. Some wondered if she wasn’t too lightweight, given the stature of previous speakers (Nobel Prize winners, former presidents, Bill Gates, Kofi Annan), a student ranted in the university newspaper that she was just a “petty pop culture personality”, another complained that “they should have picked a leader… Not a children’s writer” asking “Are we the joke class?” A graduating senior reportedly said, “You know, we’re Harvard. We’re like the most prominent national institution. And I think we should be entitled to … we should be able to get anyone. And in my opinion, we’re settling here.”  But there were others too, especially alumni (who selected her), who noted that perhaps Harvard graduates still had more to learn about the meaning of success and the many different ways of contributing to the world.

This is certainly worth twenty minutes of our time. I actually spent much more than that, stopping and writing down passages that I particularly want to remember.  Then I discovered that the whole text is included on several sites.

The text for J.K.Rowlings 2008 commencement speech at Harvard is here.

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