This article originally appeared in the summer 2019 issue of Harker Magazine.
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Head of School Brian Yager’s commencement address.
This past year, we have been especially focused on the history of Harker. As we have explored Harker’s past, it has been easy to link Harker’s trajectory with that of Silicon Valley, and many people have noted that the school has, over the past 125 years, enjoyed the same increase in scope, scale and success as has the valley in which we reside. This past year I delved into a book that provides further insight into the history of this part of the world.
In 1834, Richard Henry Dana, a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard University, decided to take a break from his studies to explore the world. Following a dream he had harbored throughout his young life growing up on the riverside near the port of Boston, he signed on to the crew of the merchant ship Pilgrim, and for two years he lived at sea. Most of that time was spent along the coast of California, and he quartered with the other sailors in the forecastle – the room below the deck in front of the mast.
Dana kept a diary of his adventures, which he published in 1 39, with the apt title, “Two Years Before the Mast.”
There are many lessons to be found in Dana’s accounts, and among them are insights into the past and future of our state. At the time of his writing, California had a population of fewer than 14,000 people. His description of his ship’s first visit into San Francisco Bay is especially illustrative of the sparseness of population and human development. He writes, “There was no other habitation on this side of the bay, except a shanty of rough boards put up by a man named Richardson, who was doing a little trading between the vessels and the Indians.” In other words, in 1833, outside of the presidio and mission, there was a single house in what we today call the city of San Francisco. This past weekend, as the senior class traveled by bus to Laguna Beach, we traversed the land which Dana spent almost two years exploring by sea (in fact, Laguna Beach is adjacent to Dana Point, the city named after Dana).
In this journey, the Harker travelers spent time in what have arguably been humanity’s two most influential metropolises of the past half-century – San Francisco and Los Angeles – and through the valley that produces more sustenance than any other region on Earth. Yet Dana would not be surprised to see the grandeur of California today. In fact, he more or less predicted it, saying, “In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!”
Today, the state supports a population of almost 40 million people, and an economy that would be the fifth largest in the world if California were its own country. There are many factors that have contributed to the emergence of California from its sleepy beginnings at the time of Dana’s journey, from the natural resources and climate we enjoy, to the confluence of technological developments and geopolitics. There has also been a culture of optimism and a can-do attitude that has permeated the people of the state. This attitude has been both captured and promoted by the entertainment industry, epitomized by the “Company that Walt Built” – Disney.
As the seniors entered the park that Walt Disney built in 1955, they passed a sign that reads, “Here you leave today, and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”
Disney’s vision was to create experiences that helped the world appreciate what it had been, and dream what it might become, and to provide not just material for our dreams collective and individual, but also the permission to ask what might be.
And, at the same time, the story of Disney, and the story of California, are not all positive. In their growth there are cautions for us to heed. The state, for all of its brilliance, grandeur and wealth, faces significant social welfare challenges and is littered with our refuse. The technologies that drive our economy and propel us into the future come with costs both physical and emotional. The Disney empire has helped us dream, but it – and other media and entertainment companies like it – has also fueled a culture of consumption and commercialism that has perpetuated stereotypes and compromised our environment. Our growth and progress have come with a price. Yet, that same progress gives us hope for solutions to the problems we have created, and it is our hope – and our challenge to you and future generations of Harker students – that you can lead the way into a future that moves us forward without setting us back.
Sixty years after Dana’s vessel first rounded the tip of the Peninsula, a couple from the East Coast followed their dream of starting a university on their family ranch, and named it after their recently deceased son. While Palo Alto only had a population of some 1,500 people in 1892, it made a suitable home for the nascent institution the couple fondly referred to as “The Farm,” and officially called Leland Stanford Junior University. A year later, in 1893, a young educator named Frank Cramer started a small school called Manzanita Hall, and, as you know if you have been reading the various displays around our four campuses this past year, so began, 125 years ago, what we know today as The Harker School.
While much has happened to Harker in the past 125 years, its journey, like the journey of the state in which we live, has been remarkable one. It has also been one built on hope: the hope that we can produce graduates who can and will steer the future in a positive direction; the hope that we can, collectively, capitalize on the opportunities with which we are blessed to undo the mistakes we have made in getting here; and the hope that our efforts to educate you will enable you to appreciate the world of yesterday, love the world of tomorrow, and that your fantasy will be to stand in a world, 50, 60, 70, maybe even125 years from now, that is one that you can say, with pride and joy, that you helped make happen.
Members of the Class of 2019, we live in an incredible time, and also one that presents problems that we need you to solve. Borrowing from the lexicon of the sea with which Dana wrote about his travels, may the wind be at your back, and your sunrises golden and your sunsets crimson, and the current your friend, and may your shipmates be trustworthy, competent and good company, and your compass and tiller true, and your destination be a good one, but the journey there even better.
We hope, with all of our hearts, that in your journeys as graduates of The Harker School you will find joy, meaning and friend hip, and that each and every one of you will fare well!