CAMBRIDGE — Former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick called on Harvard graduates Thursday to bring a restless idealism to the great challenges of the era — from climate change to the gulf between rich and poor — and to confront racism and inequality with a sense of purpose.
At the storied university’s commencement ceremony, Patrick urged graduates to avoid complacency and “be a little uneasy” as they embark on careers, leaving themselves open to new ideas and the possibility of confronting even intractable social problems.
“If enough of us are uneasy, we might begin to feel some urgency,” Patrick said.
His remarks capped a festive day at the university, marked by abiding traditions, nostalgia, and giddy celebration. Graduates posed for pictures with beaming parents, and said farewell to classmates, at least for now. Alumni through the decades reminisced and reunited with old friends.
On the warm day, graduates sang a centuries-old song in Latin, and men in top hats served as guides. Dressed-up children ran up and down the library steps and told their parents they wanted to go to Harvard, too.
Patrick, who graduated from Harvard in 1978 and was the first in his family to attend college, said the Ivy League school was “not part of my universe” as a child growing up poor on Chicago’s South Side. Harvard graduates are blessed with talent and vast opportunity, he said, but must commit themselves to the possibility of big ideas and sweeping change.
“If you are listening, listening with unease, you will hear the yearnings of a restless world,” he said.
In a world that values personal achievement, Patrick urged graduates to embrace a “restlessness that compels you to look beyond yourself for meaning.” He praised recent activist movements, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, for challenging the status quo in the face of “widespread nonchalance about poverty.”
“I welcome the engagement of today’s generation of activists,” said Patrick, who also graduated from Harvard Law School, in 1982. By contrast, Harvard students in his day protested the elimination of hot breakfast in a dining hall, he recalled to laughter.
“Will you be uneasy enough to act big?” he asked.
Drew Faust, Harvard’s president, lamented that in a self-absorbed world, the value of public service and collective action are given short shrift.
“This is the era of the selfie, and now the selfie stick,” Faust said. “We direct endless attention to ourselves, our image, our ‘likes.’ ”
This degree of self-absorption carries a cost, Faust said.
“Have we all become so caught up in individual and personal achievements, opportunities, and appearances that we risk forgetting our interdependence, our responsibilities to one another and to the institutions meant to promote the common good,” she asked. “We are larger than ourselves and our selfies,” she added.
Cynthia Torres, president of the Harvard Alumni Association and a 1980 graduate, urged the audience to “experience the full majesty” of commencement. In personal remarks, Torres recalled how her father, a migrant farm worker in California, saw education as a “way out.”
“It was the key to a successful life,” she said.
Torres arrived at Harvard unsure of whether she belonged, but found her time there “completely transformative.”
Many students agreed.
“It’s been a beautiful journey,” said Stephen Kim of Fort Lee, N.J., who plans to intern at a record company this summer. “It’s been very rewarding.”
Harvard conferred honorary degrees on 10 recipients, including Patrick. The others included:
■ Svetlana L. Alpers, an influential art historian.
■ Robert Axelrod, a political scientist best known for developing “Cooperation Theory,” which advanced understanding of human behavior around conflict and cooperation.
■ Wallace S. Broecker, geology professor at Columbia University known for his work on the ocean’s role in climate change.
■ Linda Buck, who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and is a former Harvard Medical School professor. Buck has spent a career studying the sense of smell.
■ Renee Fleming, an acclaimed opera singer.
■ Patricia A. Graham, Harvard professor emerita of the history of American education.
■ Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist who founded a hospital in Bukavu, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s war-torn South Kivu Province.
■ Peter Salovey, president of Yale University and a professor of psychology.
■ Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., which represents juvenile offenders, people who believe they were wrongly convicted, and the poor.
After receiving their degrees in the morning, many students decided to skip the afternoon speeches. It had been a busy few days, they said, and they wanted to savor a little more time with friends.
One group of friends gathered outside a nearby ice cream shop for old time’s sake. They had started going there as freshmen, and never stopped, one said. Then it was on to a bar, where each drink would come with a toast.