This commencement speech was originally given in 2008 at Harvard, and it was not lost on Rowling that the people she spoke to had lives that were perceived by the outside world as every bit as magical as Harry Potter’s.
That may be why she focused on failure, a thing Harvard graduates may not be expected to know enough about, and imagination, which she credits with making the world a better place. Utter abject romantic and financial failure after her graduation with a Classics degree taught her what resources she had inside that failure could not destroy, but paradoxically could set free. And Rowling tells us that imagination has to do with empathy—imagining worlds we have not lived—and how critical that is for a world in which we want to live.
Rowling was eloquent on the subject of her first paying job at Amnesty International in London where she learned that terrific and terrible evil can exist, and how empathy can allow our indignation and refusal to submit to surface. Those who refuse to see the burdens under which others struggle can collude with evil through apathy, without ever committing an evil act themselves.
University-educated young people will have some idea of the world outside their doors and will be able to conceive of solutions for the very difficult problems that plague us. In a way, Rowling’s speech would be best widely read outside of Harvard’s yard, among those folks who are fearful of what is to come and who are not sure they have the mental strength and intellectual resources to meet future challenges they cannot even imagine.
One of the things that those attending Harvard are expected to understand and to internalize is competition. And yet, our success in the world—the success OF the world—may depend on cooperation. What worries me more than a few Harvard graduates escaping those hallowed walls thinking they just want to claw their way to the top of the heap are the people who have begun to disparage education, learning, empathy, compassion, and self-knowledge. This is the far greater danger, the looking backward, the denial of science, of imagination. Rowling says
“We do not need magic to transform our world; we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
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