2021 Klinsky Lecture, Harvard Law School

Klinsky Lecture: Technology in the Public Interest
Harvard Law School
April 2021
John Palfrey

Thank you, Dean Manning, for your kind introduction and for the opportunity to serve as the Klinsky Visiting Professor of Practice for Leadership and Progress in this auspicious year. It is such a treat to be back with all of you at Harvard Law School–and to have been able to teach again this year, fittingly enough, given our topic today, by Zoom. Thank you, Steven and Maureen Klinsky, for being with us today and for your exceptional generosity to our shared alma mater. I cherish this appointment and the chance to be the 2021 Klinsky Visiting Professor. Thank you to Catherine Cronin in the dean’s office, Steven Oliveira and the team in the development office, Urs Gasser and all those at the Berkman Klein Center who have helped to sponsor and put on this event today.

Thank you to Professor Martha Minow who will close us out today–and who had the vision, while she was herself the dean, to imagine this gift with the Klinskys and, I suspect, to shape both this professorship and the lecture series. Finally, thanks to all of you who have joined us and will participate today. In particular, thank you to Isabella Berkley, Madeleine Matsui, and Jess Valenzuela Ramirez, all members of the Harvard Law School Class of 2023–and students in the course I taught this Winter term, entitled Technology and the Public Interest. Isabella, Madeleine, and Jess will be the initial respondents after my remarks this afternoon. I am honored by their presence and willingness to serve this role.

We have learned many things, all of us, in this past year-plus of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of many lessons has to do with Zoom. We are all familiar with the “oh, sorry, you’re on mute” and the challenges of Zoom fatigue. We’ve also learned that no one wants to listen to anyone other than the very best lecturer talk for an hour straight on Zoom. I am far from one of the very best lecturers and I will spare you even a half hour straight. The gameplan is that I’ll give more of a sprint than a marathon type lecture, then turn it over to the students to respond, then open up to the questions and comments of the larger community. We’ll end with Professor Minow, who will likely pose a question to the students and perhaps one to me, and then close us out.


My story today is framed by three key dates, each separated by twenty years: 1981, 2001, and 2021.

Forty years ago, in 1981, Steven Klinsky graduated from the Harvard Law School. We are fortunate indeed that he did, or, we likely would not be gathered here today. Steven, I hope you enjoy your 40th reunion this year.

Twenty years ago–2001–was my class year at Harvard Law School. I will linger here not to center myself in the story but to ground us in the heady days of what we then called “the Internet boom.” Professor Charlie Nesson taught a class called “The Exploding Internet.” Jonathan Zittrain, fondly known as JZ, taught the early versions of his famous “Internet & Society:

The Technologies and Politics of Control.” I had the great good fortune to be one of the early students at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society alongside a dynamic, passionate, zany crew who had gathered around what Myles Berkman called “the watercooler” for a new era.

The spirit of the times in 2001 was electric and exciting. It was also dominated by a point of view that the Internet was a new thing, a new space–cyberspace–and something that deserved to be treated differently than everything else that had come before. For many, this point of view translated into a “hands off” regulatory environment for the Internet and everything associated with it. There was a name for it: “cyberlibertarianism.” It had some appealing features to be sure: a radical openness and a sense of possibility, the lure of a new kind of more participatory and global politics, and to be sure great riches for those able to harness it.

The United States Congress and those in the regulatory agencies and judiciary at the time more or less went along with this orthodoxy. In this country at least, regulation of the Internet was kept at a bare minimum. No new major, dedicated regulatory agencies or regimes cropped up, except at the margins and when absolutely necessary. The idea was that innovation in this new space was so promising that we should not risk stifling it–not just through excessive regulation, but really through any regulation at all. The emerging e-commerce powerhouses even managed to keep taxes on sales over the Internet at bay for a while.

The effect of this hands-off approach to regulation of the Internet did exactly what it was meant to do. Witness Amazon today. It resulted in an historic boom in businesses dedicated to the Internet, social media, data, hardware, software, hosting, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning … and on and on. At least off the bat, the vast majority of these companies were founded in the United States. While countries like China have given rise to worthy competitors in many fields, the United States remains the undisputed leader in virtually all aspects of the Internet, digital media, and computing early in this new millennium.

And it made a small number of people, mostly men, mostly highly educated, mostly White and Asian, fabulously wealthy–more so that at any point in history, perhaps with the exception of the 19th century’s Gilded Age.


Warning signs emerged quickly in the ensuing years. Not everyone was enamored of a totally “hands off” policy for the Internet, digital media, and data-heavy technology industries. Scholars from around the world pointed out the dangers and shortcomings of the United States policy regime. European states and the European Commission broke sharply with the United States, though created bridges through safe harbors to allow European citizens to use the US-based services. Authoritarian regimes, including Iran and North Korea, sought to create their own, balkanized version of the Internet. China erected its “great firewall” and an elaborate regulatory regime, long on state involvement and investment, short on protections for individual speech and privacy rights.

Scholars, too, questioned the wisdom of cyberlibertarianism. Harvard Law School and Berkman Center–now Berkman Klein–scholars, too numerous to mention all by name, deserve citation here, for sure, as do many who work elsewhere. JZ, for instance, wrote “The Future of the Internet–and How to Stop It” in 2008. Susan Crawford left a partnership at Wilmer Hale to join the legal academy, calling attention to the “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.” Ruth Okediji, Terry Fisher, Lawrence Lessig, and many others pointed out the dangers of an intellectual property regime that favors only some at the expense of the public interest. Yochai Benkler and a team of researchers have exposed the role of political and media elites in spreading dis- and misinformation on social media platforms. Urs Gasser pointed us to the extraordinary array of scholarship and practice outside the United States, in the process creating a network of centers that spans more than 100 institutions and connects with and holds up the distinctive thinking of those on nearly every continent. I could go on but that would take too long–you get the idea.


And now to 2021. In early January, an intrepid group of about 70 Harvard Law School students met over Zoom for an intensive two weeks together to study these issues in the present day. You can probably imagine where this story is headed.

It was only a few days into the course that a mob stormed the United States Capitol, seeking to put a stop to the full and fair election that was to bring Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to the White House. Smack in the middle of our class, a group of largely White people took up arms against our country’s Congressional leadership in an effort to stop the certification of the election of the first African-American and Asian-American woman to one of the highest federal offices. While this insurrection mattered to everyone, it had special meaning in the context of our course.

We threw out the carefully planned syllabus for a few days to talk about what the insurrection meant to us–as people devoted to the study and practice of law and as human beings. These terrifying events, unfolding in front of us, held out the chance to talk about race, power, injustice, and social class among many other things. It was a time of high emotion, disproportionately felt by some members of our class and our society.

More specific to our course, these unsettling events in early January also afforded us the chance to talk in real-time about the decisions policy makers and company owners had to make. For starters: should Twitter take down the Tweets of the then-president that urged on these insurrectionists and ban him, while still in office, from further communications to his millions of followers on the platform? People who are in charge of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites had to decide whether to exercise their unprecedented power. Through this Harvard Law School class, we had the chance to debate this very choice–just as it was happening. We heard from a guest to the course, Peter Currie, who served until recently as the lead independent director of Twitter about the nature of this decision facing Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and their colleagues.

We studied the lack of access to broadband while school had moved to Zoom–just as our students’ Harvard Law School experience had gone entirely online for this January term. We discussed what it meant for 1 in 5 students in Chicago not to have access to broadband and sufficient computing equipment to participate in school once it had gone all virtual early in the pandemic. We debated the merits of universal broadband access and other means of closing the gaps in access to our digital network in an era in which health information, access to justice, and access to an education hangs in the balance. We had a chance to debate these topics alongside Nicol Turner-Lee of the Brookings Institution, who has made the case for universal broadband access for decades, and with Sal Khan, who aspires to make a world-class education available for free to everyone, anywhere. As an aside, the Klinskys, too, are helping make a high-quality, low-cost college-level education possible using the Internet through one of their other philanthropic efforts.

We had the chance to debate the question with which I started–whether the Internet should be subject to greater regulation than it has been for over twenty years. In the midst of this “Great Deplatforming”–as in fact the social networks did ban the former president–we took up the big picture question of whether the United States-led cyberlibertarian regime is in fact the right one in 2021. We heard our guest Jameel Jaffer, Harvard Law School graduate and director of the Knight Institute, describe the complex interplay between the protections of the First Amendment and the rights of the private platforms to decide who can publish what online. And we heard from Spencer Overton, Harvard Law School graduate and director of the Joint Center, about what technology policy has to do with voting rights for people of color and others from marginalized communities.

Today, in 2021, each of these issues is on the table for consideration by the Biden-Harris Administration, the United States Congress, and the federal judiciary. The best way to regulate social media and the algorithms that increasingly assist humans in making essential decisions, the possible reform of the Communications Decency Act’s Section 230, the call for universal broadband access–each of these issues that we had a chance to debate are live considerations for legal and policy reform here in the United States and around the world.


I did not, during the class, say all that much about my own point of view on these matters. I take the position that students are best served by working out their own ideas to the greatest extent possible in the context of a course without being steered too hard by their teachers.

That said, if they cared to know my personal views–what law scholars might call my “normative priors”–my guess is that the students worked much of it out by following the breadcrumbs I left as I set up the syllabus, chose the readings, invited the guests, and moderated the conversations. I will conclude these remarks by lifting the curtain on these perspectives a bit.

My view is that the 2001-era absence of regulation does not make sense today, if ever it did. The cyberlibertarian approach favored people one would expect it to: individuals who already had power and capital, a group overwhelmingly White and male (and in this case, Asian), the venture capitalists and technologists, the big firm lawyers and the Wall Street bankers with a technological aptitude and bent. The system has been much less good for just about everyone else. We need a regulatory regime for technology that puts the public interest first, with equity and inclusion as a design principle, not an afterthought.

Of the current debates that we took up in the course, I believe that access to broadband should be treated just as we treat electricity or the telephone system. It is far past the time that we can think of this system as anything other than an essential utility. The problems of the last mile in rural areas or the yawning gaps in cities like Chicago, where I live, need to be solved in a hurry, after years of foot-dragging.

I agree with those who believe that the social media companies had every right–perhaps an obligation–to deplatform the former president and others who were spreading misinformation about a properly conducted election and much else besides. I do not think the First Amendment does or should stand in their way. I share the worries, though, about the power we are leaving in the hands of a very small group of billionaires, who happen to be all men and all White. And I worry a lot about the fate of our country’s journalism and media sector in an era dominated by gigantic and ever-more-powerful social media companies. That is a lecture for another day.

Perhaps most controversially, I agree it is time that we amend Section 230 of the
Communications Decency Act. This key provision of United States Internet law is considered sacrosanct by many in the technology field–and is the cornerstone of the cyberlibertarian philosophy. This provision, written into law in 1996 as part of a massive overhaul of the telecommunications regime, was meant to promote Good Samaritanship by those running the emerging Internet platforms. It has a funny dynamic to it: on the one hand, it ensures that the platform providers are not held liable for the bad acts of their users. On the other, it is meant to give them protection if they choose to act as Good Samaritans, to offer a helping hand.

It is true that this extremely wide and deep safe harbor has led to the growth of Internet companies, to robust competition, and to much innovation. It has also led to many bad acts and to many companies turning the other way when law enforcement or aggrieved parties come calling. In the name of preserving their safe harbor, many companies have done far too little to protect those who have been harmed.

It is time, I believe, that the law should be amended to extend meaningful protection to all, not just some. Urs Gasser and I made such an argument when we wrote Born Digital, a book which came out in 2008, in the interests of child protection. I agree too with the arguments put forward by Danielle Citron (a 2019 MacArthur fellow, incidentally) and Mary Anne Franks about individuals who are too often harmed by this absence of a regulatory regime–mostly women and people of color. I even might be persuaded to agree with a brilliant legal scholar, who happens to be here today, who recently suggested in a seminar I attended that Section 230 should not be amended but needed to be scrapped altogether, and for us to start again. We’ll see.

I believe it is time to create new digital institutions in the public interest. Ethan Zuckerman has called this digital public infrastructure. In EthanZ’s view, building explicitly from the work of Newton Minow from the 1960s to the present day, we should treat digital infrastructure as public goods, not purely as profit-maximizing enterprises. I agree. I think of the Digital Public Library of America–creating a public option when it comes to access to digital materials and eBooks–or Wikipedia as extant examples, with much more to be built and built out. Imagine a cloud computing system that is not held in private hands, a social network that truly protects personal information, digital media platforms that transform news and information the way NPR and PBS have transformed the landscape for radio and television, and so forth.

It is time for us to reimagine the knowledge and information needs in a democracy, before it is too late, and build the institutions to meet those needs. Across education, journalism, libraries–we should imagine and build new digital infrastructure for the public good. This is the progress and leadership I’d love to see in our field.

Most important, I believe it is time for a new, dynamic, more diverse, inspired group of young people to join the field of technology and the public interest. I have every confidence that these newcomers will help to build the new, digital institutions that will serve the many, not just the few. I am excited to see what they will do to design, build, regulate, and remake structures and a system that badly needs it–in the interest of a more just and inclusive economy and our very democracy. Thank you.


Now let’s turn to the best part of this “lecture,” a chance to hear from three students who, I hope, may be among those who decide to take up these issues in their professional lives one way or another. (No pressure!)

Each of these students made their mark in our star-crossed, impossibly timed course this January. For those not currently in the Harvard Law School community, this course was part of the January Experiential Term. Over Zoom, it is hard to make something truly “experiential,” so we improvised–as we’ve improvised in nearly every aspect of life this past year. We talked about matters of doctrine and policy as a throughline to the course, but it was really about what it means to become a lawyer–the kinds of things our students can go on to think about and do after law school. In addition to bringing in guests from inside and outside the legal profession, we required students to write a self-reflection on whether their application essay to HLS still made sense to them, required them to solve a technology policy problem in a team, and do all of this online.

To help us understand this story from the student perspective, I am pleased to introduce three exceptional people: Isabella Berkley, Madeleine Matsui, and Jess Valenzuela Ramirez. I’ve asked them to comment as they see fit on my lecture, on the substance of the course, and on their experience as Zoom-only 1Ls this year. I’ve invited them to be candid, to share whatever they feel is important to know, even if it may contradict what I’ve said or throw shade on the course or the experience they’ve had so far in law school. I’m eager to hear what they have to say, no matter what, about this intersection of technology in the public interest and the experience of learning the law entirely via the technology of Zoom.

Isabella, please start us off.

All-School Meeting Introduction: Laci Green

All-School Meeting Opening Remarks, Phillips Academy

September 28, 2016

Good morning, Andover. We gather today, early in the school year, to begin our exploration of our values as a school. You are by now deeply ensconced in your classes, clubs, arts and sports. We are also deeply engaged in the work of what kind of a community we will have this year at Andover – how we will support one another, develop as young people (and as adults for that matter), and treat one another. In that work, I would urge you to be guided by the values of our school.

Today, we take up the theme of goodness and knowledge, in a very particular context. For those who were here last year, you will recall that we began, early in the Fall, with an ASM focused on sex and sexuality. I know that can seem shocking to some ears, but it is true – we are talking about sex in this chapel today, as we start the year, and we believe it to be very important that we do so.

Before I turn things over to those who will introduce Laci Green, our guest today, I want to share with you just a few brief thoughts of my own. For some of you, this discussion of sex and sexuality may seem too early to be talking about it. After all, you have just gotten here and you are still trying to find your way at Andover. I also want to be clear that our discussion of sex and sexuality is not intended as encouragement. We strongly support those who abstain from sexual intimacy at Andover and believe that to be a positive and healthy choice.

At the same time, we are aware that sex does take place in all high schools, and that Andover is no exception. You certainly tell us as much in the State of the Academy Survey and otherwise, and we take your words seriously.

We also take seriously what you tell us about sexual assault on our campus. You tell us that it does happen at Andover, and that it has happened to some of you gathered in this room. You tell us that sexual assault is carried out by your classmates at Andover and also by people you meet off campus. Given what we have all read about surveys on college campuses – the astonishing reports of last year that sometimes a third, and sometimes more, of young women experience sexual assault during colleges – we are heartbroken, we are outraged, and we know we have to do something, here at Andover. It is in this context that we begin today.

Let me make it clear: we cannot and we will not tolerate a rape culture at Andover. As adults, we will take seriously all claims of sexual misconduct that you bring to us. When that happens, we will treat everyone involved with the highest degree of respect and fairness that we can muster.

Andover: make no mistake: this one’s on us. This issue is not just for college campuses – it’s for our campus, and I know that we can together make a difference through the way we conduct ourselves, through the way we lead – with both knowledge and goodness.

It is my pleasure to turn the program over to Dr. Flavia Vidal and Larson Tolo, class of 2018.

Commencement Address, Phillips Academy 2016

Commencement Address
Phillips Academy, Andover
June 5, 2016
John Palfrey

Welcome, everyone – trustees, faculty, and staff; faculty Emeriti; alumni, families, friends, and – most of all – our beloved students.  Thank you for your presence with us today.

I would like to start with a note of gratitude to the adults in the Andover community.  Our community thrives as a direct result of individual and collective diligence, support, and love.  To all the adults who care for our students, who select our students in the admissions process, and who teach them all the way along: let us all express our thanks to these wonderful people this morning.  Please join me in a great big round of applause for the faculty, staff, and faculty Emeriti of Phillips Academy.

To the parents and grandparents, guardians and friends: thank you, too.  Thank you for the gift of time with the students you have sent to us.  I know, for many of you, that it felt like a great sacrifice to part with your children so early, for so many days out of the year – whether as boarding or day students.  For this gift of time, you have our enduring thanks.  The students you have shared with us have done you very proud.

And to the great Class of 2016: Theo Perez and Annette Bell, thank you for your inspiring words this morning.  Thank you for your exceptional leadership this year and all the years you have been with us.

To every member of the Class of 2016: thank you and congratulations.  You are a spirited group – a brilliant group – worthy of the honor we pay you today as we pronounce you graduates of Andover.  Your talent have been well on display these past few days, in our ceremonies and concerts.

I will always remember you.  You and I arrived at Andover together, four years ago.  You are the first class that I, as head of school, have been with all the way through.  It has been a delight to watch you grow and thrive here.  I remember you as you were when you arrived at Andover, whether that was four years ago – which seems quite a long time now – or this past Fall.  It is safe to say that every one of you has changed as a result of being at Andover – as a result of being with one another, in this very special place.

As we celebrate the great diversity in our community, I am struck by a wonderful combination in the Class of 2016.  Many of you are the first in your family to attend boarding school.  Though perhaps what is more noteworthy is that a significant number of you will be the first in your family to attend college.  We also have graduates whose families have been connected to Andover for literally hundreds of years – including one family with a graduate from the class of 1816, exactly 200 years ago, and a graduate today, in the class of 2016.

Whether your family is here at Andover for the first time, the second time, or the umpteenth time, you have brought much to this community.  You have done well at Andover; you have done Andover well; and we all have high hopes for what you will do with the goodness and knowledge that you have gained while you have been with us.  We are delighted to be connected with you from here on out.

My topic this morning has to do with the world beyond Andover, the world in which you enter, for good, this afternoon.  I hope that today, this Commencement – meaning, of course, a new beginning – is a chance for you to reflect upon where you have been over the past few years as well as how you might act, in the future, to make the world a better place.  How, in short, will you apply the knowledge and goodness that you have learned here when you get out there?

You leave us at a time of enormous transition in society.  The one thing I suspect we could all agree on – regardless of political persuasion – is that the rate of change is unprecedented in human history.  The problems that humanity will need to address together – and which will affect your generation for even longer than my own – make for a very long list.  We face these problems when some of our key political institutions are not in the best of shape.  The American political system, for one, is fractured – the United States Congress has a hard time reaching decisions on just about anything, candidates seem to be rewarded for making the most outrageous statements they can, and the common ground between American political parties appears to be microscopically small.

During your time at Andover, some of you have already focused on addressing the big social issues of our time.  Perhaps you agree with the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote:

“[a]chieving sustainable development on our crowded, unequal, and degraded planet is the most important challenge facing our generation,”

and you were among those engaged with EcoAction in its work on climate change.  Perhaps your concern is global poverty and hunger, and you worked on a Real World Design Challenge to help feed the billions who are hungry.  Perhaps you traveled with a Learning in the World group to help bridge cultural gaps across nations and peoples.  Perhaps you led a Technovation challenge to imagine and start building the next big start-up to create jobs and solve social problems at the same time.

Today, I want to focus your mind on a particular challenge and opportunity that lies before you.  As we rush to solve these huge problems, we often reach to technology to help us do that.  As you know, I am, myself, very excited about what our use of technology can bring.  On this campus, we have used technology in new and exciting ways in our classrooms; and we have been finding ways to use technology to share what we have at Andover with others far from here.

At the same time, I fear that the unfettered use of technology will bring with it bigger problems than it solves.

Your time at Andover has been marked by the rise of many different technologies.  Consider the sharp rise in the use of drones over the past four years.  That Real World Design Challenge team from Andover that won the Massachusetts challenge?  This team proposed the use of a drone to aid farmers in their efforts to grow crops more efficiently and healthfully.  The United States relies increasingly on drones for important combat and intelligence missions.  Less profound, but more likely to affect you directly: Amazon.com announced earlier this year that it is testing the use of drones to deliver your packages – perhaps those who follow you at Andover will get their packages directly at their dorms, instead of at Central Services in GW.   These drones can save lives, improve the economy, and help feed the hungry.

The same goes for self-driving cars.  If Andover were in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, we’d already see Google’s self-driving cars making their way around town.  These autonomous cars are well on track to come into mainstream use before long, with the promise of reducing traffic fatalities, saving tens of thousands of lives in the United States alone each year.

The list of things that are in the process of being transformed is growing with enormous speed.  Artificial intelligence – derived, as you probably know, from the work of Marvin Minsky, Phillips Academy Class of 1945, who visited us this past year and who passed away recently – is behind these many changes.  These changes are coming to our kitchens – through the Internet of Things – and into every workplace.  These innovations are automating language translation, transforming industrial production, and altering our economy in radical ways.

What do these profound changes mean for you, soon-to-be graduates?

One might draw the conclusion that the important thing is for graduates to know how to master this array of automated systems.  To some extent, that is surely true.  There are jobs to be had in programming, security, and marketing of new technologies.  The government, of any nation you come from, needs you to help secure systems and borders – in cyberspace.  The private sector needs you, to grow and to expand our economy, in the United States and around the globe.  That is all true – and I do hope some of you pursue these kinds of occupations.  I know you will be quite successful in these pursuits if so.

The bigger conclusion that I draw, though, is that we also need the humanists.  I hope that all of you, with your newly-minted Andover diplomas, will take full advantage of the liberal arts experience you have had here.

To solve the problems that come along with advanced technology, society will need people with expertise that is deeper than the technical.  Increasingly, companies and governments are finding that the people needed to tackle computing problems have not just technical expertise, but the kind of imagination that comes from a liberal arts background.

Think ahead, beyond the immediate.  Imagine the kinds of thorny issues that we can expect from a world that is more automated than it is today.  With more computers making more decisions, including life-and-death decisions on the roads and in the air, in our waterways and in all imaginable form of transit, we need ethicists who will set sensible rules ahead of time.

Two self-driving cars, for instance, find themselves on a collision course.  What answer?  Perhaps imagine a drone in the mix.  Though tricky, this problem turns out not to be a new one.

There is a long philosophical tradition of the Trolleyologists, who have considered such problems for roughly half a century.  The Trolleyologists were a group of moral philosophers who took up a series of questions that may sound quaint today.  While there are variants on the problem, the classic version goes something like this:

A trolley – in our parlance, a train – goes out of control.  It is speeding toward a crowd of people.  The people in the crowd face certain death if the train hits them.  You are standing nearby.  You realize that you could save them: by flipping a switch, you could send the train in another direction, onto a spur.  In doing so, you would divert the train and surely save their lives.  Here’s the rub: a man is chained to the tracks on the spur.  That man would be surely killed if you divert the trolley away from the other group.

The Trolleyologists spent their time wondering: should you flick the switch to save the group of lives and kill the one man?  Though the language sounds old-fashioned, the topics that the Trolleyologists took up long ago are about to explode with frequency and importance.

It turns out, you have huge advantages when it comes to tackling hard problems like this one, and the others you will face – problems that have eluded those of us who are a bit older than you are.  At Andover, you have learned much along these lines.  You have devoted yourself to the study of a broad and deep set of materials and topics.  You have all engaged in the arts, in the sciences, in the study of languages, in English, in history, and in philosophy and religious studies.

You have learned, in a long and grand tradition, how to make good decisions.  Sound human judgment is an essential element of a strong society.  Especially as we head into a more and more automated world, the decisions that humans make – often up front, or “ex ante,” before the problems occur – will only take on a greater importance.

This liberal arts tradition is not new; nor is it by chance that you are well-prepared for these hard issues.  In his inaugural address as headmaster of Andover, John Mason Kemper took up a similar theme:

“There must be faith that in every human being there is a generosity of spirit which will respond to decent treatment and the stimulus of selfless leadership. Tolerance, sympathy, respect must inevitably result in team work. Team work, in turn, can solve many community problems far beyond the capacity of any individual to solve.”

Kemper also said, that day, that:

“[…] knowledge of many fields, a wide range of interests, will enhance the understanding of the interrelation of events and activities.”

The Andover of today – your Andover – is not far different from the Andover of 1948 in these essential respects – no matter how many drones may swirl overhead.

You have a second essential advantage.  You are bridge-builders.  We have asked you, in many ways and in many contexts, to spend time with other youth from every quarter.

You will bring to these essential, emerging problems your ability to get along with one another and to listen to one another.  I know that we have not been perfect at that these past four years.  (We have not been perfect at that these past four weeks, for that matter.)  But I put great stock in the fact that you’ve had a lot of practice.  You have lived, worked, argued, and played alongside an extraordinarily diverse group of peers and faculty.  You have disagreed with one another, quite vociferously at times.  You have hurt one another’s feelings and you have struggled through hard days and long nights.  But here you all are.  You come together today as a class, the Class of 2016, graduating together.

I can’t possibly say what the biggest problems of tomorrow will be, exactly.  But to solve the problems that face society today and will face society going forward, I am certain that we will need people who can listen to one another; people who can appreciate other points of view; people who cherish diversity in all its forms; and people who can work across difference, turning the other cheek, setting aside hate and anger – choosing, instead, empathy and love.

The founders of Phillips Academy and Abbot Academy were devout Christians.  Though today we do not invoke religion as often as 238 years ago, I am reminded of a passage from Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”

Those who have gone before us have also urged us to do so in the spirit of making a difference.  In the words of former Abbot Academy principal Phebe McKeen:

“Girls are urged to consider their education incomplete till they have learned to do some one thing that the world will count it worth paying for.”

We seek, at Andover, for our work to be connected to the world at large – just as the Abbot women of the past urged their graduates.  We talk of an Andover Bubble, but we aspire to be more than a place of isolation.  Through our work on campus and in off-campus community engagement, we aspire to make a difference in the world.  Mostly, thought, we aspire to do that through you – our graduates.  What you go on to do is the source of our greatest hope and our greatest pride.

You may have thought your work at Andover has just concluded; I am here today to tell you that your work at Andover is just about to begin.  That work is not about exams or races or concerts or plays or art installations on campus – it’s about how you will act in a world that needs your care, your support, your leadership, and your good human judgment.  As we bid you adieu, we have enormous faith in what you, the class of 2016, will do – in all your humanity, with all your grace.  Congratulations, and Godspeed.  Thank you.


Recent Books: on Adolescence, Technology, Sexuality, and More

A few times per year, I have been sharing a “Head of School’s bookshelf” with community members at Phillips Academy.  It comes this time in two parts: 1) six books that are among those I’ve read in the past few months and which I commend as “community reads” because of one or more connections to the work that we have underway at PA; and 2) a special list of readings about sexual education. I express my particular thanks to the members of the PA Sex Ed Working Group, who compiled the Part II listing below at my request.  I hope you might go to your local independent bookstore or library to pick up a copy of ones that are of interest!

Part I: Adolescence, Education, Technology, and the Brain

danah boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale, 2014)

Note: This book has been years in the making, by a close friend and collaborator of mine — and the work has paid off handsomely. danah’s perhaps the single most astute scholarly observer of the teenage social and cultural scene that I know. danah has especially thoughtful things to say about identity, privacy, safety, and social practices of teens. I’m a fan of this book for many reasons, not the least of which is that she takes up (and expands upon) many of the same themes and hard problems that my co-author and I examined in the book I wrote in 2008 (Born Digital, with Urs Gasser). Though her ethnographic methods are different than ours, the conclusions she reaches are consistent in most cases, and updated for the technology and practices of today. I learned an enormous amount from it and imagine others will, too; that’s especially true if you are interested in the social lives of the students in our midst.  But you don’t have to have worked on these issues as a researcher to appreciate this book in many, many ways.

Dave Eggers, The Circle (Knopf, 2013)

Note: This book came to me initially as a gift, for which I’m grateful, from Tom Hodgson when it first came out (which is not meant as an appeal for gifts from the faculty, but to acknowledge its provenance and also to say that I take suggestions!). I always enjoy Dave Eggers’ writing. This fictional account describes a dystopia, in which the current trajectory toward extensive use of social media continues to an extreme that no one should welcome. The problem that the book presents is that this dystopia just might come to pass if we are not careful about the choices we make in how we develop, deploy, and regulate technology use.

Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale, 2013)

Note: I’ve observed, admired, and worked with both of these co-authors on a range of matters, through their work at Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education. In this book, they develop ideas that danah boyd also takes up in It’s Complicated, as well as many of those I’ve worked on in previous settings, too (identity, privacy, play, and how biology works into the mix). They add some nice insights about intimacy (chapter 5), as well as thoughts on how the app structure of today’s technology is playing out.

C.J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (University of California, 2011)

Note: C.J. is a leading scholar of youth practices, with a deep knowledge of development in the context of sexuality as well as media usage. This book, which came out several years ago, remains one of the most thoughtful current books about masculinity and the cultures in which our students are coming to grips with and developing their sexual identity. She’s an ethnographer, who writes based on eighteen months of fieldwork in a racially diverse, working class high school environment. C.J. is a great writer and researcher; her book sheds much new light on the intersectionality between gender, sexuality, race, and media. I also thought there were interesting echoes in particular of our PA colleague Tony Rotundo’s “American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era” (Basic Books, 1993).

Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Atria, 2011)

Note: This book has been recommended to me by many people — including PA trustee Chien Lee and medical director Amy Patel — and I was thrilled to read it. This title is a great way to get up to speed on the “well-being and balance” issue that is likely to be a component of our strategic plan. This book builds on the life’s work on Seligman, whose work on happiness he has updated here based on lots of new science and serious rethinking.

Daniel J. Siegel, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Tarcher, 2014)

Note: As the parent of a twelve-year-old, I started out reading this book because I saw that he defined the “teenage brain” as stretching from ages 12 to 24. I am taken by the value that neuroscience has to offer us as teachers in a residential school. Siegel’s insights about brain development, risk-taking, sexuality, and other central ideas are well-described and ultimately compelling.

Part II: The Sex Ed List

The Sex Education Working Group compiled the following list, including additional resources to guide in further exploration of teenage sex and sexuality.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders (Broadway Books, 2003)

Note: To help students understand the experience of wrestling with gender as well as the importance of talking to and listening to the people you love. Boylan has served as an English professor at Colby College for the past twenty-five years.

Heather Corinna, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College (Da Capo Press, 2007)

Note: This may be a bit more “technical” and less theoretical but it is likely to resonate with students.

Robie Harris, It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health (Candlewick Press, 2009)

Note: This book avoids needless density and jargon, and is straight to the point with a light narrative touch, and vivid, but not gratuitous illustrations of the wide range of human bodies, their sexual capacities, and how to use those capacities safely, wisely, and with fulfillment.

Link to PDF of excerpts from the book:

Click to access Its-Perfectly-Normal.pdf

Nikol Hasler, Sex: A Book for Teens: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex and Safety (Zest Books, 2010)

Note: Like It’s Perfectly Normal (above), this text may be a bit more “technical” and less theoretical, but is likely to resonate with students.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Random House, 2009)

Note: To help students not only understand gender dynamics but also the sexual health and reproductive challenges (violence, sex trade, use of rape for war and intimidation, lack of access to birth control, dating stigma, pregnancy mortality and morbidity) of adolescents and young women in developing countries. Perhaps exposing our students to the sexual health dynamics and challenges of their global peers not only increases their awareness and empathy but also empowers students’ self efficacy and personal responsibility around sex and sexual health.

C.J. Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (University of California Press, 2007, 2012)

Note: (A repeat on both lists, described here by the sex-ed team): This is a bold ethnographic study of the performance of masculinity at a public high school. The author’s observations are vivid. She does a good job explaining how “fag” is a word that polices masculinity — it is a gendered and racialized term that now has a larger meaning than simply “gay.” It’s a good book, and it does concern sexuality, but it’s not precisely about sexuality either.

Debbie Roffman, Talk to Me First: Everything You Need to Know to Become Your Kids’ “Go To” Person About Sex (Da Capo Press, 2012)

Note: It is geared towards the parent audience, and perhaps the House Counselor audience. The author works with the independent school population, is a long-time sex educator, and has some real-world scenarios in the book that might assist in house counseling. It is unlikely to be engaging for a student.

Dan Savage and Terry Miller, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living (Penguin, 2011)

Note: In terms of LGBT, the It Gets Better Project which began on YouTube in response to the youth suicides in 2010, sends messages to teens to help them believe that their lives will improve. This is a recently published book with the same title.

Ritch C. Savin-Williams, The New Gay Teenager (First Harvard University Press, 2006)

Note: Williams discusses how LGBT teens find the labels of previous generations static and stifling. They may not categorize themselves as their LGBT forebears did, and they may be less interested in labels, period. It’s an interesting read, but it’s also somewhat on the academic side and stats-driven (study of studies).

Out of the Blue: A CAMD Student Project (Phillips Academy, 2014)

Note: Among many other topics, this is a great resource for sexual identity/orientation.

In addition, the Sex Education Working Group compiled the following list of websites as helpful resources:


Note: The It’s Your Sex Life Guide is part of an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning public information campaign partnership between the Kaiser Family Foundation and MTV to support young people in making responsible decisions about their sexual health. The site focuses on preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and reducing unintended pregnancy.


Note: The Respect Yourself Campaign is a UK based partnership between Warwickshire County Council and Coventry University designed to engage with young people around issues of relationships and sex, especially the areas in which young people are lacking from contemporary school-based RSE (relationships and sex education). RespectYourself.org is place where young people can safely explore their emerging sexuality, without judgment and a place where they can ask questions and receive open and honest answers.


Note: Sexetc.org is a comprehensive sex ed resource by teens, for teens. This peer-to-peer communication site is monitored and run though Answer, the national sexuality education organization based at Rutgers University. The website provides information about relationships, sex, LGBTQ, biology, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, birth control, and abuse and violence.


Note: The American Psychological Association (APA) hosts a trustworthy website that addresses many topics in psychology. This site reviews articles as resources to guide or instruct work with students, parents, and faculty members. This website often includes recent and up to date sources of intervention as well as pertinent data.


Note: The National Association of School Psychologist (NASP) also integrates research and data regarding psychological topics and has helpful handouts available.


Note: The above link hosted by The University of Texas at Austin represents a comprehensive set of resources addressing sexual assault, rejection, relationships, dating violence, sexual consent, and healthy sexuality.


Note: From the American Academy of Pediatrics, this website has short content on a wide range of sexual health topics for adolescents and parents, and is updated regularly.


Note: For quick answers to quick sexual health questions that our students ask regularly.


Note: This website includes current statistics to stay on top of trends and includes data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. This gives access to all of the data available nationally, and you can sort it by a number of variables (geography, specific “risk” question, year, grade, race/ethnicity, etc).