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Excerpt from the first Sesquicentennial lecture delivered by Harvard’s president Drew Gilpin Faust
Who and what is higher education for? When we ask who higher education is for, it is clear we have come a long way since Fr. McElroy* sought to provide opportunities for the sons of Irish immigrants or even since Harvard president James Conant established the Harvard National Scholarships in the middle of the Great Depression. We seek to serve talented students of every race, gender, ethnicity—as well as those from even the most limited financial circumstances. In this realm, our challenge now is to be able to deliver on the promise that education represents and to make sure that it is available and affordable. This may be a difficult goal to achieve, but it is not a difficult one to define.
But the second question: what education is for. This is the quandary, and, in some ways, even a danger. The instrumental necessity for higher education—the hope it offers so many for a materially better life, for social mobility and prosperity—is compelling, especially in a time of economic uncertainty. This is a case that is easy to make; the promise of jobs and economic growth has widespread appeal. But we must not let the clarity and measurability of the economic case for higher education lead us to abandon the more difficult work of explaining, and embracing, higher education’s broader purposes. By focusing on education exclusively as an engine of material prosperity, we risk distorting and even undermining all a university should and must be. We cannot let our need to make a living overwhelm our aspiration to lead a life worth living. We must not lose sight of what President Kennedy, speaking at the Boston College Centennial, referred to as “the work of the university . . . the habit of open concern for truth in all its forms.”
The Jesuit tradition has been deeply committed to this work, to the principle that an education is not just about knowledge, but also about how to live a life. Boston College has for 150 years sustained this tradition, founded in empathy, outreach, and service. As Rev. Brosnahan argued in his rebuttal to [Harvard’s] President Eliot, the elective system “might produce experts, but [it] could not develop a man.” Boston College graduates are asked to carry forward that larger sense of purpose, in the words of Fr. Leahy, by “shaping the future . . . with a sense of calling, with concern for all of the human family.”
And yet we remain in danger of imperiling the powers of higher education to accomplish those ends. In the rush to apply knowledge to the world’s problems, we lose sight of fundamental questions. We devalue the kinds of inquiry that slowly build the humane perspective—the critical eye, curiosity, and skepticism, the habits of the restless mind that yield our deepest understandings. In our need to know the facts, indeed, bombarded by facts, we forget the fact that we are all interpreters, who need not just information, but meaning. In focusing narrowly on the present, we cut ourselves off from the past and the future, blinded to the long view that has always been the special realm of higher learning. How can we create minds capable of innovation if they cannot imagine a world different from the one we inhabit? How can institutions fixated on utility nurture the open spirit of the liberal arts, especially those fields, the arts and the humanities, devoted to questions of interpretation and meaning? How are we to regard the 20 percent decline in humanities concentrators—what we call majors—at Harvard in the past decade in the context of the urgent need for these disciplines in a 21st-century world? Think of the constant reassessment of facts required by the field of law, or the scholarly reimagining of Lucretius or Shakespeare, made new for each generation, or the implications of new science and technology for how we understand what it means to be human.
The scholarship that has served as the beating heart of the research university is exploration based on curiosity. It fosters imagination, the human ability, as J.K. Rowling put it in her 2008 Harvard Commencement address, “to envision that which is not . . . enabl[ing] us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
And scholarship not only requires empathy, it teaches empathy—as a capacity and a skill as well as a virtue. I experience this in my own work as a historian. To hold a letter from the Civil War era in my hands inspires me to imagine myself in a different life; it transports me in time and space and forms an implicit commentary on my own assumptions. Their mortality is no different from mine; we share a common humanity across 150 years. Yet their ways of living and dying were so very different. What do I understand newly about myself by seeing that so much of what I am might be otherwise? Such meditations lie outside the torrents of Tweets and blogs and instant information. They exist in the domain of slow and painstaking research, of the free and unfettered search for understanding. Without such scholarship, without zones of contemplation, with only prescribed purposes and goals, we will underemphasize the questions that most concern us, our lives, our mysteries. We will gradually amputate that process, as Rev. Himes called it, “through which we become more fully human.”
The capacity for interpretation and reinvention lies at the heart of the liberal arts. It is fundamental to the humanities. And it is central as well to much of scientific thought. Curiosity-driven fields illuminate the cosmic past as well as the human past—the quest for the Higgs boson and the origins of the universe or the discovery that there was once water on Mars. In Britain it is often referred to as “blue skies research,” exploration for its own sake, without immediate application or any identifiable economic potential. That phrase is derived from the seminal example of British physicist John Tyndall, who in 1869 asked, literally, why the sky is blue. Using a test tube, vapors, and a powerful beam of light, he devised an answer, with no idea that his discovery would also show how light can follow a curve and lead to the invention of the flexible gastroscope and bronchoscope and a host of other advances.
Curiosity in fact often generates serendipity and turns out to be more useful than was ever intended. Take the case of the two Bell Lab astronomers who, in trying to get rid of what they thought was static in their space-mapping antenna, stumbled onto cosmic background radiation, a key piece of evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe. Or Alexander Fleming, the biologist who discovered penicillin by accident—he called it “sometimes find[ing] what you are not looking for.”
At their best, universities maintain a creative tension, tackling the purposeful and the apparently pointless with equal delight: from the eating habits of the vampire squid to the nature of empire to the technology for optimal vaccine delivery. We must continue to nurture that creative tension. We must value it and encourage it and assure its place in the structures and modes of academic inquiry and in our understanding of the university’s fundamental purposes—because sometimes the best path to short-term goals is through the unplanned byways of the long-term perspective. We need both. We must remember that in this age of “outcomes” and measured “impact” the means and processes of learning and of intellectual exploration have importance in themselves.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once said, “We do not read to discover the end. . . . Reading is felicity.” We like results. We appreciate answers. But to paraphrase Borges, we do not learn in order to discover the end. Learning has no end. We perhaps learn most when we come ultimately not to an answer, but to a better question.
Universities are a set of institutions unlike any others in our society. Certainly our budgets must balance, our operations must be efficient, but we are not about the bottom line, not about just the next quarter, not even about who our graduates are the day they leave our walls. Our task is to illuminate the past and shape the future, to define human aspirations for the long term. How can we look past the immediate and the useful, beyond what I have called the “myopic present,” to address the larger conundrum of: How shall we best live? Who do I want to be today—and tomorrow? To discover not only the ways in which human civilization plans to get somewhere, but to ask the question, Where does it, and where should it, hope to go?
Just about a month ago now, I stood on the battlefield at Antietam, a participant in a different sesquicentennial, that of the bloodiest day in American history, a battle that claimed some 6,500 lives. A tragic day, yet a day that transformed the nation, yielding the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and a path toward Union victory and a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That proposition and the closely related desire to expand both personal and national opportunity produced the ferment for education that found one expression here in Boston in the founding of this institution. A young Union soldier named Michael Leary returned home to this city from the war to become a laborer and a junk dealer. But while he was away, serving his nation, the idea of a college for the sons and grandsons of Irish immigrants had become a reality. His two sons James and Henry would attend Boston College, and they too would serve, for both became Jesuit priests.
Boston College has opened vistas and possibilities for tens of thousands of individuals like James and Henry Leary. And it has challenged them to think about the good they can do with their education and their lives. Yours is a great university, an institution that in a century and a half has never lost sight of its larger purposes. It is a privilege to celebrate with you that singular achievement and to honor the Jesuit commitment to scholarship, justice, and service. They are all needed today just as urgently as they were 150 years ago.
*Boston College’s founder John McElroy, SJ; also cited in this talk were Boston College’s 10th president, Timothy Brosnahan, SJ; University President William P. Leahy, SJ (the 25th); and theology professor Rev. Michael Himes.
Drew Gilpin Faust is the 28th president of Harvard University and the author of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (2008), for which she received the Bancroft Prize. Her essay is drawn from the address she delivered in Robsham Theater on October 10 upon being bestowed Boston College’s Sesquicentennial Medal.