Rowling Rocks Harvard: On Failure & Imagination

Harvard has posted the transcript to Ms. Rowling’s Commencement Address. I give it five stars, not because it had any JFK or Churchill moments, but because it avoided the disaster it might have been and did all that a graduation speech can do.

The pitfalls she avoided?

*There was no payback for the “fundamentalists” who hated Harry;

*There was no endorsement of a Presidential candidate or mention of partisan politics per se;

*There were no story references or back-story teases thrown out as flattering self-references (the ‘gay wizard’ joke I thought was wonderfully done); and

*There was nothing so painfully confrontational that the ceremony and experience of parents and students were darkened, demeaned, or diminished.

What did the speech do well?

*She put forward two decent themes (embracing failure, empathic imagination) that were challenging without being confrontational and sufficiently personal not to be platitudinous;

*She was modest and honest about her background without failing to grasp that this was a celebrity speech and she needed to talk about herself and her experiences;

*The speech was well-organized, just the right length for this kind of event, and eloquent in the guise of being conversational; and

*The talk, if anyone does remember it or look it up later for reading and reflection, rewards any time it is given.

Why? She spoke about responsibilities to the larger human family, about principles for living, and about how the “bad times” are necessary, even edifying. This last especially intrigued me because I have little doubt she was stringing out a safety net for these graduates, all of whom will eventually suffer personal loss or hardship, and all of whom, I suspect, will remember Ms. Rowling’s talk when they do. Perhaps one or two will have cause to reconsider the course of their lives now if she revealed to him or her that they are living lives in the fear of failure. I don’t think a graduation speech can do much better than that.

Two quick notes: on alchemy and on politics.

Ms. Rowling described her experience of poverty and failure, everything but living under the bridge, as her nigredo. No, she didn’t use alchemical language, but she came pretty close:

“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Harry’s annual hero’s journey and alchemical transfiguration, I think we can assume, are both hermetic artistry of the first rank and chapters from the fictional autobiography she was writing.

And politics? Forgive me, but I doubt anyone walked away from this speech with Ms. Rowling pigeon-holed as either a Bush-bashing liberal or neo-con. Her remarks of gratitude about growing up and living in a free country are not the sophomoric comments of a flag-waver or burner:

“Every day of my working week in my early 20s I was reminded how incredibly fortunate I was, to live in a country with a democratically elected government, where legal representation and a public trial were the rights of everyone.

Every day, I saw more evidence about the evils humankind will inflict on their fellow humans, to gain or maintain power. I began to have nightmares, literal nightmares, about some of the things I saw, heard and read.

And yet I also learned more about human goodness at Amnesty International than I had ever known before.”


“What is more, those who choose not to empathise may enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.”

She walks the political divide here, chastising the powerful who cause nightmares in sleeping and waking lives and the unimaginative who believe they are not part of the regime though they are not actively resisting its abuse of power.

Full marks.

My favorite part of the talk was, as you’d expect, her telling the story of her decision to walk down the Classics corridor at U Exeter “in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom” largely in defiance of her parents’ expectations. I made a similar choice and walk — and enjoyed the Classics references in the speech all the more for it.

The best single line and probably the only one that will make its way into my book on Deathly Hallows, in fact, was the line from Plutarch (or Otto Rank; see Quotes to Inspire You) and her pointed exegesis:

“One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

But how much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives? Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received, give you unique status, and unique responsibilities. Even your nationality sets you apart. The great majority of you belong to the world’s only remaining superpower. The way you vote, the way you live, the way you protest, the pressure you bring to bear on your government, has an impact way beyond your borders. That is your privilege, and your burden.

If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

Ms. Rowling chose to speak to the world-shapers on behalf of the powerless and to invite them to join the community of human beings. How? By their imaginations, yes, but, citing Plutarch, by asking them to re-imagine their interior lives. The remarks were pointed at her Harvard audience, certainly, and their advantaged position as anointed power-wielders-to-come, but they were for all her readers as well. This was Harry’s experience, vanquishing the internal Voldemort by dying to self, which victory was what made his exterior duel with the Dark Lord a relatively small and near-certain outcome, however real and important the exterior evil is.

Ms. Rowling asks us to re-imagine ourselves, to stretch our ideas of what we are about and the effect we can have on others consequent to exorcising our interior demons and conceits. No, it wasn’t Solzhenitsyn and couldn’t be (compare the nigredo of the two speakers and the audience each commanded; I doubt very much the New York Times will be publishing her full remarks tomorrow). It was a topos of imaginative literature powerfully delivered, if only because it didn’t attempt too much.

I look forward to reading your thoughts on the speech and your comments and corrections of my thoughts.


  1. Well, I predicted the “Gay Dumbledore” comment would be the focus of reporting in the Daily Prophet; I never would have guessed it would take center stage here.

    For those of you who haven’t read Travis Prinzi’s comments at Hog’s Head Tavern about Ms. Rowling’s speech (especially the thoughts on Fabian politics) or seen the video, please do follow those links. I was delighted to find the speech as delivered was as good or better than the written item.

    There were a few small changes (one for the better was “best educated Harry Potter discussion” to “largest Gryffindor reunion”) but I felt the interior/exterior meaning and relationship came across more strongly live than on paper, as did her endorsement of the work and idea of Amnesty International. I expect the AI membership rolls will soon be swollen by young Potter-philes — and I think that is a good thing, by and large.

    Note the interior/exterior relationship comment in closing the “fear of failure” theme”

    Given a time machine or a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.”

    And her comments to introduce her remarks:

    Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

    I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.”

    In the opening she offers an example of self-reflection. In the second, she all but says “beware the life of the hollow-men and Ugly American.” When joined to her closing remarks on imagination with Plutarch/Otto Rank, she hits her listeners/readers, first, middle, and last with the same point: find the essential inner strength and truth and the outer world and its challenges will not be equal to this “bedrock.”

    Having now seen the video, I would only add that it was delivered almost flawlessly, with only one misstep and with excellent timing on the jokes and heart-touching anecdotes. As I said, Five Stars.

  2. Travis Prinzi says

    Excellent thoughts, John. I’d add that I think the interior change producing outward change, which I know has lots of alchemical undertones, also underscores the Fabian link – outward society doesn’t changed by being regulated; it changes through the transformation of hearts and minds, which is a lengthy process, not a radical revolutionary overthrow of the powers that be.

  3. Travis Prinzi says

    John asked me to move conversation from the previous thread into this one, so here goes:

    RedRocker wrote:

    I think that having made the most revered and respected character in her outragelusly popular saga gay, she has struck such a major blow for the acceptance of gays into the literary mainstream, that she can make gay jokes, much as a gay person can, because her acceptance is not in question. She has, in effect, become an honororary gay person, with the rights due to gay people, including the right of self-parody.

    I’m not sure I buy this yet. Keep in mind I’m stepping out of my own box here just a bit. Rowling seems to me a bit of a coward on this issue. Every important romantic relationship or desire for love in the entire series is expressed as such explicitly in the books. Except Dumbledore’s love for Grindelwald. In her mind, according to her post-DH interviews, Dumbledore-Grindelwald was hugely important to Dumbledore’s character flaws and plot choices. But there’s no mention of his love for Grindelwald in the text at all. She only said something about it afterwards, and only that in response to a reader question.

    When questioned about this, in one interview she says she couldn’t tell us Dumbledore’s sexuality because it would have given away the Dumbledore-Grindelwald connection! (Right…)

    Then in another, she tells us that there are “20 things more important” about Dumbledore than his sexuality. Which is it? Is it so important it would give away the ending, or so unimportant that it doesn’t even need to be mentioned? Even while every important or trivial heterosexual relationship in the entire series gets a mention.

    I know it’s a potential thread-hijacker, because there are so many other good things to talk about, but I wanted to respond.

  4. Red Rocker says

    Travis, you sound like the author of the magazine article who wrote in response to the original revelation (of Dumbledore’s gayness) that having a gay character who was celibate for all of his life was not much of an endorsement of a gay lifestyle.

    I don’t think it matters whether Dumbledore embraced an openly gay life-style, or how comfortable JKR was in talking about his sexuality. All that matters is this: Dumbledore, the epitome of wisdom and strength and (in some eyes) goodness, was gay. The equation, gay = good, can not be clearer.

    But that is hijacking the thread with a vengeance. Back to the business at hand. John writes:

    “This was Harry’s experience, vanquishing the internal Voldemort by dying to self, which victory was what made his exterior battle over the Dark Lord a small and near certain thing.”

    What does that mean, exactly “the internal Voldemort”?

  5. Travis Prinzi says

    John, I do apologize for making that issue center stage here. I was attempting an honest reply to redrocker, but that probably should have been left in the other thread (and feel free to move it there if you’d prefer). I’m going to refocus my comments here back to the real meaningful stuff of the speech, which I agree deserves 5 stars.

    I knew you’d be happy with the Plutarch quote 😉

    I was particularly pleased with the Seneca quote, because it beautifully taps into the idea of myth relating to life, Faerie informing the primary world. Imaginative literature is meant to produced creative heroes (see Joseph Campbell and particularly Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water for insight into that brilliant concept) who do as Rowling exhorted: imagine better. Mythopoeic literature moves us from the mundane into the creative so that what was previously mundane is such no longer. Chesterton said that nursery tales taught him that “the world is wild.” That’s precisely it. We need minds moved by imagination, because it takes creative heroes to challenge abusive power and bring it down by self-sacrifice. All attempts to bring it down by brute force make one into the enemy he or she was trying to topple in the first place.

    Which means that all the time we spend on classics, on fairy tales, on fantasy worlds, on Harry Potter actually matters. It’s not a fun hobby or a fringe group of people who take kids’ stories too seriously. Storytellers change the world.

  6. What does that mean, exactly “the internal Voldemort”?

    Ummm. the Scar-Horcrux? Though I risk your guffaws by suggesting this is something like “Everyman’s Sin Nature,” I think there is something of a correspondence. Ms. Rowling is no Augustinian but there is a psycho-spiritual allegory of sorts being played out here with Harry’s inner and outer victories over Lord Thingy.

  7. Travis Prinzi says

    Red Rocker – just trying to imaginatively enter into the experiences of a non-mainstream group with no power, as Rowling exhorted (even if I disagree with the lifestyle itself). That one magazine article wasn’t the only thing I read at the time that expressed that kind of frustration.

  8. Travis Prinzi says

    Though I risk your guffaws by suggesting this is something like “Everyman’s Sin Nature,” I think there is something of a correspondence. Ms. Rowling is no Augustinian but there is a psycho-spiritual allegory of sorts being played out here with Harry’s inner and outer victories over Lord Thingy.

    Precisely! Bang on. Scarcrux, “the internal Voldemort,” is one of the most powerful portrayals of the Campbellian, mythological hero/shadow pairing I’ve ever read.

  9. Red Rocker says

    I’ll respond to Travis’ first comment on the other thread.

    Call the scar-horcrux the Shadow, for argument’s sake.

    What about “dying to self”? What does that represent?

  10. Travis Prinzi says

    I should have noted this above when making the Plutarch-Fabians link: Plutarch wrote a biography of Fabius Maximus, after whom the Fabian Society was named.

  11. RenaBlack says

    I loved the nigredo aspect of the failure theme, and her relating the work of an author to the act of empathy. Beautifully described…and pointedly, I think, considering the audience. Having just “commenced” myself, I found her remarks very timely. 🙂

  12. I was lucky enough to watch the speech this morning. It was without doubt the best commencement speech I’ve heard. The ones that were for my high school, community college and university commencements were so forgetable that I don’t even remember who the speakers were. Of course, I do think that as a 58 year old I listen to this sort of thing differently than I did when I was 17 or 21.

    I liked the two things Rowling chose for the focus of her speech, and I thought she hit just the right tone of being personal but relevant to anyone of any age listening. She acknowledged her celebrity without making it the point of her speech, yet she spoke in a way that didn’t assume that everyone there was a fan or even a Harry Potter reader.

    I think the audience response at the end was indicative of just how much she succeeded in the content and delvery of her commencement address.


  13. That Address was indeed excellent. And your comments upon it are excellent too!

    My previous guesses at the other thread may not have been very accurate. But I was right that she is much too intelligent to walk into the stupid trap of commenting upon the American election.

    Her statement on the value of democracy and the open judicial trial system are common values to both Bush and Obama. As to the British and European left and right. So it was rubedo golden synthesis, not nigredo vs albino power struggle. (Or is that a too Hegelian interpretation of alchemy?)

    My prediction about her literary focus were inaccurat, but not totally wrong. She push her literary agenda. But she did it by expanding the value of (literary) imagination and (literary) nigredo experiences into somehting with relevance also outside literature, with relevance to our whole life.

    I was not at all able so foresee that. However it was excellently done! Somehow she built a bridge from Harry’s seven experiences of dark hours into the coming dark hours of the graduates (and all others). And from reading Harry into learning for life from reading him.

    On those who «prefer not to exercise their imagination at all»: Isn’t she here talking about the Dursleys? Giving them (negative) relevance into even world politics? Calling them sufferers of «mental agoraphobia»?

    On the self ironic gay wizard joke: Why not interpret it as her attempt to play down again the whole question of D being gay? As if saying: «That was perhaps not the very best fruit of my imagination. Laugh, and let’s forget it.» – ?

    Thank you for the opportunity to consider the message of that excellent Address!

    Yours Odd
    (Bergen, Norway)


  14. Actually, I have wracked my mind and heart for what I ought to say to you today. I have asked myself what I wish I had known at my own graduation, and what important lessons I have learned in the 21 years that has expired between that day and this.

    I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.

    I woke up this morning with the thought that this is as close as we are going to get, as close as we should get, to Ms. Rowling’s thoughts on the meaning and value of her books to readers, young and old. In seeing and participating in and re-membering Harry’s cyclic transformation and victory over his interior/exterior evil, we are strengthened in our own nigredo and faith. And our imagination and empathy with others, our awareness of the restrictions of our own “third-person limited omniscient” perspectives, is expanded in seeing how Harry’s “greater view” (i.e., learning Snape and Dumbledore’s perspective and understanding, the black and white) was his victory over the Scar-Horcrux and Dark Lord.

    We got that in Ms. Rowling’s commencement speech, the talk detailing what she wanted them to know, what she wished she had known. Could that possibly be a different message than the one she shares in her book as a writer? I don’t think so.

    In my predictions thread earlier this week, I dreaded this talk. Today I think we have in hand the closest we will get or should get to Ms. Rowling’s “reasons for writing” and “meaning of Harry Potter.” That it confirms and highlights so much of what Mr. Prinzi and I have been writing, of course, is satisfying; that it was done just this way — with lots of room for discussion and no restrictions on meaning — I thought was especially generous and prudent.

  15. The press coverage has been good, even very good. My apologies to the Fourth Estate for predicting they’d grab hold of the “gay wizard” line and run.

    There were one or two insane takes on the speech and I didn’t find anything from the Times (UPI, AP, UK and Boston papers were the only ones featuring write-ups at their web sites that I found). Still, for The Daily Prophet, this was a good day.

  16. @ Red Rocker re: ‘Dying to self’:

    I think this points to Ms. Rowling talking about the ‘stripping away of the inessential’, or the nigredo as Professor would put it in alchemical language. True meaning and happiness often can only be fully realized once all other distractions have been purged. One must ‘die’ internally, forsaking all that is not pure within themselves (greed, anger, hatred etc), often leaving much of what they perceived as themselves behind. Only then can we be rebuilt stronger and more whole than before; in a more pure form, if you will, alchemically speaking.

    As Professor said: Once Harry truly accepted death and embraced it as not a curse or a punishment, but as a means of growth and purification, his final battle with Voldemort was merely a foregone conclusion.

  17. Red Rocker says

    Eric G.

    That is more or less how I understood it – a purge of non-essentials, a purification. That explains the “dying”.

    The reason why I asked the question, however, was because of the words “to self”. Because those words suggest something else going on, a loss of the personal, of what makes one distinct. The words “dying to self” also suggest being born to something else, moving on to something beyond the self, something more universal, or even divine?

    Would that be the “pure form” (alchemically speaking) that you’re talking about?

  18. revgeorge says

    I think you’ve hit it pretty good, Travis. The baptismal life & the life of denying oneself & taking up one’s cross is not a denial of selfhood or personhood. That is, we’re not seeking to do away with our individuality or our own consciousness as one might try to do in some Eastern religions. We’re turning away from that self centeredness that only thinks of itself & only desires things for itself & thus uses others for its own goals & instead seeking to live self sacrificially, looking beyond just ourselves.

  19. Travis Prinzi says

    The words “dying to self” also suggest being born to something else, moving on to something beyond the self, something more universal, or even divine?

    I think that’s the idea. “Dying to self,” in my theological circles, means “dying to the self-centered, sinful self.” But the death isn’t an end in itself…the baptized does not stay under the water, but rises to new life, a redeemed life of love (with lots of failures and vices of the “old self” still, sadly, prevalent in practical reality!)

  20. revgeorge says

    Just a brief comment on your post, Red Rocker. I think what John means by the internal Voldemort goes beyond just the scarcrux. The internal Voldemort in all of us is that part that only wants to live for itself, that doesn’t want to die, because it identifies dying as the end.

    I think we see that a little bit in Harry. He doesn’t want to die, even if he knows it will defeat Voldemort. He wants to live, but in this case by living he can’t save others. Only by dying.

    Of course, I agree with you that this is hard to see in Harry because he’s always been so good. As you say, almost without original sin. But I think both elements are present in Harry & it is this that makes him a Christ figure.

    Perhaps John will expound more on this. Or write a book. Either one. I’d love to hear it. Some good discussion.

  21. Red Rocker says

    Well, now that I have a clearer understanding of what John meant by his description of Harry’s experience as “vanquishing the internal Voldemort by dying to self”, I can respond to his original invitation for comments.

    It’s a long way to the top of this post, so I’ll repeat the crucial part of his post:

    “Ms. Rowling chose to speak to the world-shapers on behalf of the powerless and to invite them to join the community of human beings. How? By their imaginations, yes, but, citing Plutarch, by asking them to re-imagine their interior lives….This was Harry’s experience, vanquishing the internal Voldemort by dying to self, which victory was what made his exterior duel with the Dark Lord a relatively small and near-certain outcome, however real and important the exterior evil is.”

    And the Plutarch quote, of course, is:

    “What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.”

    There is no disagreement that JKR and John are both talking about some kind of internal process or event, an “achievement”. I’m not sure, however, that they’re talking about the same kind of achievement.

    It seems to me that JKR is asking for an act of imagination, of empathy – for the privileged to imagine the experience of the powerless. The desired outcome of this act of imagination would be for them to use their power to influence the actions of their superpower government to help transform the reality of the voiceless. She wants them to make the world a better place by feeling for the powerless.

    Harry’s internal achievement was his willingness to give up his own life in order to defeat evil. John writes about the “internal Voldemort” and “dying to self”, both of which make his achievement a spiritual one – along the lines of purging yourself of your baser, more selfish urges.

    I don’t think the analogy really holds at that level. It was not his baser urges that Harry had to get rid of, unless we consider the will to live base. And he really didn’t have too many selfish urges to begin with. He was a pretty good guy. Almost without Original Sin, we have speculated. His “internal Voldemort” was not an essential part of him, except in the purely mechanical sense of the scarCrux.

    As for the ability to imagine life for the powerless, voiceless, downtrodden victims of tyrannies, again, no act of imagination was required for Harry. He had the ability to empathize with victims almost from birth. Whether it was his Lily-heritage, his powerless position in the Dursley household, or just being a decent chap, he was the champion of powerless victims everywhere.

    I don’t think JKR was referencing, even indirectly, her boy-wizard in asking the graduating class to try to see the world from the perspective of victims. However, I think that Harry Potter was there, in spirit, as the end point of what might happen if people did engage in an act of imagination – they too might be motivated to give up all in order to help -and save – others.

    As John would say: comments and corrections please?

  22. revgeorge says

    Thank you for the clarification, John. It is helpful. Yes, empathy is to an extent dying to one’s self because you’re putting yourself into the place of someone else. And even if at the end you cannot agree with or accept what the other person believes or is doing, yet you can still see where they are coming from & can relate to them on a human level instead of dehumanizing them.

    I think Harry does this in HBP when he empathizes with Draco. He still hates Draco’s infatuation with the dark arts but he empathizes with him that he’s now trapped by it & doing things under duress, out of fear for his family.

  23. In her Harvard address, Ms. Rowling seemed to be saying “Be like Harry, my postmodern hero.” Insomuch as the act of imagination she calls them to requires a transpersonal act (empathy, identification with ‘other’), it is a spiritual death to self. Harry’s apotheosis, as you point out, is not redemption from original sin so much as his purification, illumination, and perfection by sacrifice, in love.

    Ms. Rowling asked the 2008 Harvard graduates not to fear or flee the first part of this process when life hands it to them as failure. Why not? Because it will make love that much easier, love being one name for that ’empathy’ or ‘imagination’ amounting to ‘identification with other’ she described in the second part of her talk.

    I agree with you, Red Rocker, that there was no direct reference to Harry in these remarks but her message to her readers in their experiences with Harry was very much the message of these remarks.

  24. revgeorge says

    Sounds like Jo’s speech hit a few nerves with some people who are apparently full of themselves because they’ve attended Harvard.

    Personally I think the world could do with a few less leaders, since they generally lead us into more messes, all while thinking they’re doing us peons a grand favour.

    The more I think about it, the more Jo’s speech was spot on for people who need to be grounded in reality & also humility.

  25. Some Harvard students thought Ms. Rowling was not a good choice for their commencement:

    Senior Kevin Ferguson found Rowling “inspirational.”

    “She touched me definitely, without a doubt,” says Ferguson. “I was crying a little bit. I tried to fight it but J.K. just brought it out.”

    But to other seniors, the guest of honor was less than magical.

    “I think we could have done better,” shrugged computer science major Kevin Bombino. He says Rowling lacks the gravitas a Harvard commencement speaker should have.

    “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. ”

    Rowling was chosen by Harvard’s alumni. University President Drew Gilpin Faust applauded her selection, saying, “No one in our time has done more to inspire young people to … read.”

    Rowling follows a long line of heavies who’ve spoken at Harvard’s commencement. In 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall used the platform to detail his “Marshall Plan” to rebuild Europe after World War II.

    Since then, speakers have included such luminaries as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, other heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, and scholars.

    “It’s definitely the ‘A’ list, and I wouldn’t ever associate J.K. Rowling with the people on that list,” says senior Andy Vaz. “From the moment we walk through the gates of Harvard Yard, they constantly emphasize that we are the leaders of tomorrow. They should have picked a leader to speak at commencement. Not a children’s writer. What does that say to the class of 2008? Are we the joke class?”

    I enjoyed this assessment of life in Cambridge and these complaints from an alumnus my age:

    Older Harry Potter fans were similarly dismissive of the grumbling. To many, the complaints just prove that even Harvard graduates still have a lot to learn.

    “They’ll grow up,” says 1983 graduate David Epstein. “They’ll have a broader worldview and they’ll understand that there are many, many ways to contribute. You know what they say — the freshman bring so much, and the seniors take away so little.”

    The Wall Street Journal posted a note on its website about the speech, but the Times and other papers seemed to have passed over it as a non-event.

    Does anyone know who is speaking at Yale’s Commencement this year? Without looking it up? Didn’t think so.

  26. Red Rocker says

    Pearls before swine.

  27. revgeorge says

    They’ll always have the gay wizard joke. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I liked the comment you referenced near the end. “They’ll grow up.” Ah, the folly of our youth. When we thought we knew it all & didn’t need to learn anything from anybody. When we were full of ourselves & thought ourselves at the top of the heap, ready to tame the world. I imagine those youthful feelings must be exaggerated in people who’ve been told they’re the best & brightest. Life, unfortunately, won’t treat them any more kindly than it does the rest of us.

  28. My thought was only that those who needed to hear the message were largely immunized against it, the Percy Weasleys of the lot. They may have reason to recall it at a future date (and blush about their “A-list” remarks at their nigredo nadir) when her memorable comments about not being memorable will come to mind.

  29. Red Rocker says

    Agree with you both, revgeorge and John,

    The reaction shows how sorely JKR’s gentle reality check was needed – don’t get too carried away by all this, a lot of it is inessential; open your minds to the suffering of those less fortunate than you so you may do some real good.

    And it shows as well that it did fall on deaf ears. A few deaf ears, anyways.

    Oh well, she did her part. And did it well, I think.

  30. Tony Blair was the Class Day speaker at Yale this year, BTW, way back in May. [By tradition, they don’t have a Commencement Speaker “unless a sitting President receives an honorary degree.”]

    Do you think any of the attendees remember what Mr. Blair said? I wonder if he remembers what he said. His biographers, if meticulous (or bored), may give it a look; I doubt they will mention his Yale speech in their work about the man.

    In contrast, I’m confident Ms. Rowling’s remarks at Harvard will be cited by critics of her writing and of imaginative literature in general much like Tolkienites cite JRRT’s work on Fairy Stories. Count on it.

  31. Coppinger Bailey says

    As for the critcism of the address including this comment…

    “From the moment we walk through the gates of Harvard Yard, they constantly emphasize that we are the leaders of tomorrow”

    What should, exactly, the leaders of tomorrow have a firm grasp of?
    Seems like the ability to imagine & envision a “tomorrow” and a perspective on failure & perseverance might be at the top of the list…

    I love John’s description of the address as “safety net” for some of the graduates. It reminds me of a NPR story I heard circa 2 years ago about a professor – at Harvard, I’m almost positive — lamenting his students’ inabililty to deal with open-ended assignments.

    He was describing how the current crop of undergraduates had been groomed their whole lives to “over”-achieve & were guided by well-constructed processes along the way. e.g. – do “X” amount of community service; take “x” amount of AP classes; make “X” GPA; score “X” on your SAT. So, when faced with developing projects from scratch, they were lost without an “X” to aim for. Instead, they became highly-stressed and harangued him to tell them what he “wanted” them to say or do. If that doesn’t demonstrate both a lack of imagination & fear of failure, I don’t know what does!

    Measuring your progress in life as a series of X-spots hit in succession was precisely what Ms. Rowling was warning against, too. I thought her comment that a Harvard graduate’s definition of failure might look alot like another person’s definition of success was great.

    I loved that she emphasized imagination as the uniquely human and empowering quality that can allow us to create positive change in the world: “we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” — also important & interesting that she described imagination as “morally neutral”…

    I agree with John that this speech is one of, if not the, best articulations straight-from-the-author’s mouth on her opinion of the value of Harry’s story to her readers.

    And thanks to oshove for the Dursleys & “mental agoraphobia” take! Awesome!

    There’s no such thing as cats that read maps. 🙂

  32. I work and have children. So by the time I get to write down my thoughts on any thread it is usually close to played out. But oh well, here’s a thought:

    How’s this for a classic JKR double edged joke?

    “This liberating discovery enables me to proceed without any fear that I might inadvertently influence you to abandon promising careers in business, law or politics for the giddy delights of becoming a gay wizard.”

    Meaning number one:
    How fun! What a crazy idea. No graduation speaker is going to convince someone to change sexual orientation or give someone the power to do magic.

    Yet in the postmodern sense I think taking on some of the characteristics of a “gay wizard” is exactly what JKR is asking the graduates to do. She encourages them not to dismiss the powerful “magic” of imagination but to use it to bring about change. And she asks them to be “gay” not in the sense of sexual orientation, but in the sense of seeing things as an outsider sees them and being aware of those aren’t values by the majority.

    I thought it was a wonderful speech.

  33. There’s no such thing as cats that read maps.

    Bull’s eye.

    We’re pretty much 100% on giving two thumbs up to the Harvard speech.

    Does anyone see how it could have been better?

    Curious John

  34. Red Rocker says

    Well, yes. A couple of points. One stylistic. One content.

    The two parts of the speech don’t connect. First she says (extreme summary here) don’t be afraid of failure, it’ll teach you vital life lessons. Then she says, try to imagine what life is like for those less privileged than you so you can use your privilged status to help make the world a better place.

    They are both important points, and well worth making, no doubt about that. But how do they relate to one another? To me it’s like she’s making two mini-speeches rather than one integrated one. And that’s what she more or less says:

    “I have come up with two answers. On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination.”

    But perhaps that’s just my inability to see the connections.

    My other point is this. The example she cites of the cruelty and suffering she witnessed, second hand, at Amnesty International, is not very successful. The trembling of the torture victim as he describes his experience is moving enough. But his cry as he hears of his mother’s death is a little stagey. And the co-worker’s cry for a hot drink just doesn’t belong in the same narrative. It’s not very good story telling. And to those who would respond that this was not a story but real-life, I say: but she was trying to make a point. She could have made it better, that’s all.

    But these are quibbles. She stood before the bright but spoiled children of privilege and exhorted them, gently, to remember that glory is fleeting (thank you, revgeorge!) and to remember as well those less priviliged than themselves. They should invite her back every year to do the same for all of their graduating classes.

  35. Arabella Figg says

    I’ve been really busy and am behind; I haven’t heard Jo’s speech yet. I’ve read this post and comments and will listen to her speech later. But just a couple remarks.

    First, Harry had empathy to begin with because of his Dursely upbringing. He came into the books suffering as an abused outcast, so could empathize with other outcasts. But he also endured, for example, the Cruciatus Curse at the end of GoF, which gave him empathy for Neville’s parents and those in the Order. His experiences with the Ministry made him burn for justice. He suffered over and over in a way his classmates never did. Because he suffered much, he loved much.

    Tony Blair may likely had some very meaningful things to say at Yale. I encourage you to read this week’s Time magazine article titled “Tony Blair’s Leap of Faith.”,8599,1810020,00.html

    Speaking of leaders (take the earwax out, Harvard grumps), we need visionary leaders like Blair who can inspire people to rise above their pettier selves (dying to self?) and help meet the many and crushing needs in the world.

    Off to feed the “suffering” kitties some treats…

  36. Arabella Figg says

    P.S. I should have said “leaders like Blair and Rowling.”

    Fullatricks is giving me the eye…

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