Tom Hanks gives Harvard commencement speech, tells grads to defend truth: ‘The responsibility is yours’

Actor Tom Hanks was the principal speaker at Harvard University’s commencement on Thursday, where he urged more than 9,000 members of the Class of 2023 to fight for truth and to stand up to those who oppose it.

Speaking to the school’s newest graduates at Harvard Yard’s Tercentenary Theatre, Hanks said society has changed the way it views truth and claimed some people no longer see its value.

“Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made, the same option for all grown-ups to make: to be one of three types of Americans — those who embrace liberty for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent,” Hanks said.

He added: “Only the first do the work of creating a more perfect union.”


The two-time Academy Award winner laced his speech with a number of superhero references — the genre of which has become dominant in Hollywood — to suggest it is up to ordinary people to act extraordinary.

“We are all in a cage match, mixed martial arts battle royale with agents of intolerance and braying incompetence, the malevolent equals to Imperial stormtroopers, Lex Luther, and Loki. And we could use a superhero right now,” Hanks said, the Harvard Gazette reported.

“There ain’t no Superman, nor anyone else in his Justice League,” he added. “In the never-ending battle, you have all officially joined as of today, the difference is in how truly you believe, in how vociferously you promote, in how tightly you hold onto the truth that is self-evident: that of course we are all created equally yet differently, and of course, we are all in this together.”

Hanks said the fight over truth was “not fair” but encouraged the graduates not to “be embittered by this fact.”


“We all get to complain about The Man, and we all have debts we gotta pay, and we’re all entitled to a day off to lay about. But the work that is called for is the construction of our ‘more perfect union,’” he said, per the Gazette. “That job will never, ever be completed, one that requires rigorous attention and unfading wherewithal and all hands. The work is the keeping of the promises of our promised land, the practice of decency, the protection of freedom, and the promotion of liberty for all, with no exceptions. That takes a lot of work done on multiple job sites every single day, and you can call each of them a battle for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.”

Hanks, who received an honorary arts doctorate from the school, also said some people in public office use truth as a malleable medium.

“For the truth to some is no longer empirical. It’s no longer based on data, nor common sense, nor even common decency,” the iconic actor said. “Telling the truth is no longer the benchmark for public service. It’s no longer the salve to our fears, or the guide to our actions. Truth is now considered malleable, by opinion and by zero-sum endgames.”

And: “The responsibility is yours. Ours. The effort is optional. But the truth, the truth is sacred. Unalterable. Chiseled into the stone and the foundation of our republic.”


In his remarks, Hanks also made a reference to fictional Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who he portrayed in three movies in the “The Da Vinci Code” series.

Hanks said, “Now, without having done a lick of work, without having spent any time in class, without once walking into that library — in order to have anything to do with the graduating class of Harvard, its faculty, or its distinguished alumni — I make a damn good living playing someone who did,”

Hanks starred in three films based on Dan Brown’s books: “The Da Vinci Code,” “Angels & Demons” and “Inferno.”

On a lighter note, the actor referenced the Bible ending his speech, “May goodness and mercy follow you all the days. All the days of your lives. Godspeed.”

Larry Bacow, Harvard’s president, also attended the commencement. It was his last before he steps down at the end of June. He has served as the school’s president for five years.

“I have never met anyone who thinks the world we live in is perfect,” said Bacow, who received a standing ovation after his remarks. “This statement is equally true of liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and those across the political spectrum. So, if you believe this world is imperfect, the only way it will get better is if good people like you work to repair it. This is now your responsibility.”

Claudine Gay, who currently serves as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will become the next president on July 1.

Harvard University is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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