Commencement 2023

Graduate Commencement Address by Annette Gordon-Reed

Honorary degree recipient Annette Gordon-Reed gives the Commencement address during the Graduate Commencement ceremony on May 21, 2023.


Good afternoon to distinguished faculty members, to honored guests, and to the graduates of Brandeis University, who I'm honored to be able to call my classmates. I'm very happy to be here with you today and to share this moment with you, your family and friends. Although I admit it's something of a daunting prospect to be responsible for saying something profound on an occasion like this, particularly when I know you all are anxious to get out of here and on with your lives. I promise not to keep you too long. 

This is, of course, a great occasion, a celebration that marks the end of many years of hard work and sacrifice, and the beginning of even more years of hard work and sacrifice, and what I hope will be a bright future for each of you. I wish you joy in pursuing the fields of study you have chosen, and I congratulate you all on displaying the fortitude and perseverance that has brought you to this moment. I also must acknowledge that part of your journey took place in the midst of some extremely difficult circumstances, circumstances that made things much harder for you than for most other generations of graduate students. Now, I know the graduates of the 1960s and the 1940s might want to have a word with me about that pronouncement, as having been young people who faced the terror and uncertainty of war. But what happened to all of you, to all of us, starting in 2020 was profound in other ways. A worldwide pandemic required unprecedented responses and altered the circumstances under which you normally would've pursued your degrees. If pressure, uncertainty, angst, and anxiety are integral parts of the graduate school experience, and they all are, COVID-19 and the response to it exacerbated all of those elements, creating even greater anxiety and stress as you did the kind of work that was required of you in your individual fields. 

The pandemic saw the closing of archives. It interfered with fellowship opportunities and in some cases love relationships. It made camaraderie among fellow students more difficult. It created worry about your own health, about the health of loved ones, and actually in some cases, some of you may have lost loved ones to COVID. My students at Harvard Law and in the graduate program in history spoke about the deep, deep isolation they felt as they dealt with all the circumstances that were completely out of their control. And yet, you persisted, sticking with the program and working successfully toward your goals. 

So here you sit having triumphed over adversity, understanding, I hope, that just as you made it through these times, you can meet whatever challenges come your way. Not to be alarmist, although I have no doubt there will be many good times, indeed that those good times will outweigh the bad, there will be challenges. Challenges that grow out of the particular moment our country is experiencing. You are graduating into a world in what could be called, at a minimum, interesting or strange times. As you probably have noticed, the very things that you have devoted so many years to doing, pursuing higher education, developing expertise, and being among the people who are a part of higher education have come under increasingly virulent attack. What is taught in colleges and universities, the kinds of things about which scholars research and write, the kinds of things you have been doing, have been pulled into the partisan fray as item items in a so-called culture war, the purpose of which beyond furthering political ambitions is mysterious. 

These flare-ups occur periodically throughout American history. I sometimes think we are reliving the 1980s, my era, but without disco. But this incarnation of the culture wars has gone on much farther than in other times, with state legislatures attacking the composition of university courses, collections in public libraries, as well as the curricula in K through 12 classes.

Even the concept of an expert, a status to which all of you have aspired in your respective fields, has come under attack as if the pursuit of expertise has not throughout the years been seen as a good thing. The desire to pursue expertise, really excellence, helped propel the United States into the forefront of the world in terms of science, technology, medicine, as well as the humanities. It has transformed our lives, mostly for the good I would say. As a result of these attacks, one of our country's greatest assets, our colleges and universities, which are and should be the envy of the world, are portrayed as venues for producing enemies of American citizens and American values. 

Although it has been commonly observed that there's a strain of anti-intellectualism in the United States, I believe that the stronger tradition has been in favor of improving oneself and thus improving the country through dedication to study and hard work. The anti-intellectual strain may always have been present but it has not been the predominant impulse in American life. 

The will to improvement through education has been strongly present from the beginning of our nation. From my area of expertise, the early American republic, I think of the example of George Washington, the first president. Washington was not what anyone would call a learned man. He had been trained as a soldier and farmer rather than as a scholar. There are indications that he felt some degree of self-consciousness about his lack of education. He worked hard to improve himself, reading as much as he could. When he won the presidency and the time came to pick his cabinet, he deliberately looked for and chose people who were better educated than he, men like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. He did not hold their erudition against them. It was a plus for him and the country. Although he did not end on good terms with either man — politics and ambition came between them — there is no question that Washington admired the fact that both men were extremely well-read, could speak different languages, and could hold their own with their European counterparts, as they did the work they had to do for the good of the country. 

The United States was now a player on the world stage and it needed leaders who would be comfortable there. Of course, Jefferson thought that education from the primary level to the university level was essential to the development of and success of the new American nation. That is why he championed public education, and why he founded the University of Virginia. That belief in the need to develop expertise through study continued throughout the 19th century with the establishment of land grant colleges and universities, and historically Black colleges and universities, to educate the former enslaved and their families as they sought to improve their circumstances and contribute to the welfare of American society as a whole. It continued into the 20th century. 

One of the most affecting paintings that Norman Rockwell ever produced entitled "Breaking Home Ties," depicts a young man with his father waiting for a train. The father is obviously a farmer by his dress, worn face, and hands. The son sitting next to him is all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, earnestly looking past his father for the train that is coming to whisk him away to State U, whose sticker is prominently attached to his new suitcase. 

The painting tells a story that has been replicated so many times throughout American history. This boy was going to college, not graduate school, but the basic message is the same. Despite all the carping about elites and elitism, the pursuit of higher education is a thing that most American families have always wanted for their children. They have sacrificed for it, even if it took their children away from home, away from the class into which they were born, away into a world that their family might never truly understand. Despite all of these possibilities, the pride in their children's achievement was strong. 

You all are even more special. You are now part of that flow of faith and hope that has propelled so many beyond high school, and beyond college even, to explore in depth areas of studies that are the product of your passion, or the product of your desire to work in a profession that allows you to make a decent living for yourself, to help solve some of the critical problems we face today, to do research that will help develop policies that will make life better for others. 

Disregard all disparagement of what you have committed yourself to over the past years. It has without question been an admirable adventure. Know that the majority of people whom you encounter will be impressed by what you have done, by the hard work you have put into your studies. Keep in touch with the spirit that kept you going, and I'm sure brought you great joy as you mastered your field of endeavor. In sum, keep the faith. I convey my best wishes to you for a happy and fulfilling personal life and a happy, fulfilling career. Thank you and congratulations to the class of 2023.