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Matt Damon receives Arts Medal from Harvard

Actors John Lithgow and Matt Damon at Sanders Theatre Thursday.

BILL BRETT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Actors John Lithgow and Matt Damon at Sanders Theatre Thursday.

We’re guessing Harvard won’t make a habit of honoring dropouts, but the school made an exception Thursday for Matt Damon.

The actor, who has somehow managed to do all right without ever graduating from the World’s Greatest University — he attended from 1988-1992 — was presented with the 2013 Harvard Arts Medal during a ceremony at Sanders Theater.

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The Cambridge-bred star of more than three dozen films, including “Good Will Hunting,” the blockbuster “Bourne” franchise, and the forthcoming Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” was described by Harvard president Drew Faust as “an everyman who is exceptional.”

In accepting the award, Damon talked about the Boston Marathon bombings. Like everyone else, Damon said, he’s “still in shock and wondering what it all means.” He said he was stunned to learn that 19-year-old bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a graduate of Cambridge Rindge & Latin, where Damon went to high school.

Damon quoted actor Mark Wahlberg, who had described the bomb blasts as “[expletive] disgusting.” Said Damon: “That’s a perfect description for what we all felt viscerally.”

Thursday’s event was the kickoff of Arts First, Harvard’s annual festival showcasing students involved in the arts. Previous recipients of the Harvard Arts Medal include visual artist Catherine Lord, saxophonist Joshua Redman, composer John Adams, poets John Ashbery and Maxine Kumin, and Pete Seeger and Bonnie Raitt, both of whom attended Harvard, but like Damon did not graduate.

Earlier, Damon, looking well-scrubbed in a blue suit and white shirt, had an entertaining sitdown with fellow actor — and actual Harvard grad — John Lithgow. Damon was relaxed and without pretense as he talked about his enormous success — and occasional failure.

In the latter category, he placed “Promised Land,” which he co-wrote with John Krasinski. Damon said he thinks it’s a terrific film, an opinion not shared by many critics.

“It’s like a gut punch when it doesn’t connect with the audience,” he said. “But life goes on. One of those [movies] doesn’t mean the end of my career.”

Aside from his parents, whom he said nurtured his desire — declared at the age of 13 — to be a professional actor, Damon said his success is thanks to the encouragement of his high school acting teacher Gerry Speca and celebrated Boston theater director David Wheeler.

Damon also talked about his work with Water.org, the nonprofit he cofounded to provide clean water in hundreds of communities in Africa, South Asia, and Central America.

Looking out at the college students filling Sanders Theatre, Damon made one request. “Please hold onto your humanity as you go out into the world.”

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