The 2007 Harvard commencement festivities graced Cambridge with two high profile Bills.

Former President Clinton spoke at Harvard College’s class day exercises on June 6th (full text).  He spoke on looking past our differences to embrace a spirit of reconciliation in the manner of his hero, Nelson Mandela.  The class day forum has had a diverse history of speakers, ranging from entertainers the likes of Ali G. and Conan O’Brien, to Mother Teresa, Bono, or Nelson Mandela himself.  To this Harvard grad, it seems that the choice of speaker is somewhat indicative of a certain cultural mood for the graduating class and more (well, there’s the zeitgeist, and sometimes just the luck of the draw getting speakers…see Al Franken’s speech).

Reading through Clinton’s address reminded me of Bono’s 2001 address (full text) on his conscience for equality.  What is interesting about both speeches, aside from the celebrity power, is that there’s not so much a pat on the back on being graduates and having a general mandate to “be good people, agents of change.”  But rather a challenge to see more, and do things differently, not necessarily more, but just be different.

Which brings me to Gates’ commencement day speech (full text) on his personal journey in his work in the Gates Foundation as well as his exhortation to the graduating class to ask the question “What for?”  Instead of stroking the collective ego and accomplishments of my alma mater, he just asks what’s the point.  What for the talent and intellect and the degrees, are these resources going to be even used to solve the bigger problems in the world, quite refreshing and sobering at the same time.

Reading these two speeches was good way for this computer scientist to articulate in structured sentences (instead of code) why we do things here.

– Dan