How A Harvard Dean's Commencement Speech On Life's Big Questions Went Viral

James Ryan's "Wait, What?" (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
James Ryan's "Wait, What?" (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Sometimes those inside the ivory tower have as much to offer people outside of it as they do to those who are in there with them.

Dean James E. Ryan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education recently proved himself to be a stellar example.

Ryan received his bachelor’s degree from Yale and went on to be first in his class at the University of Virginia Law School. These impressive academic credentials earned him the most precious of golden tickets for freshly minted lawyers: a clerkship for the chief justice of the United States. (In his case, this was William Rehnquist.)

After practicing law for a few years, Ryan returned to teach at his law school alma mater. In his 15 years there, he would serve as an academic dean and found the Program in Law and Public Service.

Nevertheless, last year, Ryan proved his ability to relate to people outside the institutions of higher learning with a speech to the Harvard Graduate School of Education Class of 2016. Since it was uploaded to Facebook, it's received more than 8.5 million views.

“I had colleagues who emailed me to say, ‘You need to check out your video. It’s going viral. There are millions of people who watched it,' ” the unlikely internet star said in a recent phone interview. “But then I started getting emails from people from all over the country and from all walks of life and who were writing to tell me that they found the questions incredibly useful.”

Those people included students, teachers, business executives, lawyers, judges and pastors.

In fact, the response was so vast that an editor at HarperCollins invited him to write a book based on the speech. The result is “Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions.”

Although the slim volume contains most if not all of the 25-minute speech’s content, it is not simply a printed version of it.

Ryan’s accessibility is most likely due to the relatively modest path that led him to where he is today. This path started with his adoption as a newborn and continued with his upbringing in a small blue-collar town in northern New Jersey.

“My parents didn’t go to college but cared deeply about education,” Ryan said. “I had some great teachers in high school who helped me get into Yale, and it totally changed my life. And it got me thinking from a very early age why the system worked for me when it failed so many others.”

In the book and speech, Ryan recalls an encounter that his adoptive mother had in the parking lot of a grocery store that bordered a wealthy town that neighbored Midland Park, where his family lived.

He tells of a woman who approached his mother and asked if she was from Midland Park. When his mother said yes, the woman inquired, “Was that Yale sticker on the car when you bought it?”

Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan. (Courtesy Harvard)
Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan. (Courtesy Harvard)

Ryan's mother was a recovering alcoholic who spent six months in a rehabilitation facility when he was 7 years old. Ryan finds his heroes — and central philosophies of "Wait, What?" — in unlikely places.

“When I was in elementary school,” he writes, “our school custodian had a huge key ring hanging from his belt. … I wondered what other doors, unseen, the keys might unlock, and what lay behind them. I thought the custodian was the most powerful person in the school because he had all the keys. To me, keys signaled power.”

In his speech, Ryan proceeded to make this somewhat obvious but eloquently phrased analogy:

Questions are like keys. …I am suggesting that the five questions that follow are like five crucial keys on a ring. While you’ll certainly need other keys from time to time, you’ll never want to be without these five.

Ryan devotes a whole chapter to each question that he deems essential: “Wait, What?” “I Wonder…?” “Couldn’t We at Least…?” “How Can I Help?” and “What Truly Matters?”

These are, respectively, “the root of all understanding,” “the heart of all curiosity,” “the beginning of all progress,” “the base of all good relationships,” and a query that “helps you get to the heart of life.” (If I may be as annoyingly pedantic as Ryan claims he was once annoyingly inquisitive, I would like to point out that statements beginning with “I wonder” are declarative, not interrogative.)

These are questions that “can serve as a very useful guide to living a fulfilling life.” Asking them, Ryan believes, “can just as readily help you get through a Monday morning as they can help you figure out what you want to do with your life.”

Ryan is aware that these are not the only five questions that one should have on the key ring of life. This acknowledgment allows for what is the overarching theme of “Wait, What?”: “Questions are just as important as answers, often more so.”

Therefore, responding with a worthwhile question can be of at least as much value when a correct answer is not readily available.

In many cases, going viral is a dubious honor reserved for things like doughnut-licking pop stars, beguiling house pets, tactless politicians and surly airline security officers. Thankfully, however, there are times in which the internet spreads social or philosophical good.


Blake Maddux Writer, The ARTery
Blake Maddux writes about nonfiction, popular music and stand-up comedy for several publications in the Boston area and on the North Shore.



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