“Empires of the Mind”

Rudenstine outlined an international agenda in his afternoon address

In keeping with this Commencement's international theme, President Neil L. Rudenstine's afternoon address focused on Harvard's global educational opportunities in a post-Cold War world transformed by economic, political, and technological change. Excerpts appear here; the full address may be found on the magazine's website.


We are an American university. Indeed, one of the reasons that students and scholars come to Harvard from abroad is precisely because we are an institution within a society that has a distinctive national identity and a deep commitment to openness and freedom, in education and more broadly. As we think about the future, there is no question that we will become an institution whose activities and reach are more "international." But we will do so within the context of our own powerfully established values and traditions. With that in mind, let me outline several priorities for Harvard's emerging agenda in international studies.

First, we have an unprecedented opportunity to consult research materials that are far more accessible to us than ever before. These materials will help us to understand major episodes in the history of societies that have long been closed. Students and scholars also have a much greater opportunity to interview ordinary people, as well as officials, in these societies, in the search to discover and interpret the past in greater depth, and to understand the present more clearly.

We now know, for instance, that before the collapse of the Soviet Union, we continued to operate on the assumption that it remained a powerful, essentially monolithic rival empire--when, in fact, it was on a path toward disintegration. We may not be able to say precisely what we would have done if we had known the reality of that situation in 1970, or 1980, or later; but at the very least, we would have begun planning in a more informed way for the dramatically different situation in which we now find ourselves.

So we must do all we can to understand the realities of the current world, and to do that we will have to invest much more substantially in research abroad, and in curricular change at home. Our nation has not made such a concentrated investment for many years. But then we--our universities and all of us who care deeply about education--must do so, because we simply cannot risk moving ahead in ignorance.

Next, we need to create stronger connections among our various fields of international study--across disciplines and across different parts of the University. We need to create more opportunities to bring together faculty and students from a wide range of academic fields, so that they can address subjects or problems that demand different perspectives if we want to understand them as a whole.

For instance, we know a modest amount about the causes of ethnic and racial strife in certain areas of the world. However, there is a great need for studies that compare the structural elements and historical circumstances that emerge when we look carefully across a range of examples. Why do some ethnic and racial groups manage to live together with a greater degree of harmony than others? Are there general patterns that might guide us toward a broader understanding of ethnic and racial strife, so that we can build a more promising basis for addressing situations of this kind?

To undertake such studies, we need people who know the relevant languages and cultures; we need historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists; we need students of sociology and politics. In so many different areas--environmental protection, or the spread of deadly infectious diseases, or the implications of an increasingly global economy, or the effects on society of the media and of modern information networks--we will make serious progress only if we are willing to adopt an international and interdisciplinary perspective.

Third, we must expand the opportunities for international exchange, bringing together faculty and students from different nations on our own campus, as well as affording more opportunity for our own students to travel, study, or work (primarily as interns) abroad. Nothing can replace the kind of learning that happens when individuals are able to have direct contact, for a considerable period of time, with people from different cultures and backgrounds.

That is how genuine discussion and debate about international issues often start--how friendships, professional relationships, and other forms of mutual understanding can be created. That is how new insights, knowledge, and important human values are conveyed and shared. And when this process continues, we increase immeasurably the prospects for building on those relationships over decades--and for bridging the inevitable gaps that so often arise in international affairs.

The final point I want to make relates to the present state of higher education and research around the globe, and the unusual position that our American system of higher education now occupies.

Around the world, dozens of nations are in an uncertain state of rapid transition--politically, economically, and in other ways. Many of these nations simply do not have the resources to create major systems of higher education.

Far too many countries have much too small a supply of well-trained people to help develop stable, sound institutions--whether in health care or government, business or law, education or environmental planning. Harvard and other American universities have the capacity to offer this assistance, especially through mid-career and executive-education programs. Even now, thousands of individuals (from more than 100 countries) flow through our programs from year to year. We learn an extraordinary amount from the many visitors who come to our campus from abroad; and we in turn are able to make a substantial contribution to the individuals and to the societies to which they return.

The world situation we face today differs greatly from the one that followed World War II. The long-term needs lie not only in the realm of tangible goods, but at least equally in the realm of knowledge.

So, if there is a Marshall Plan for today or tomorrow, it must include the effort to create greater human capital--and deeper forms of mutual understanding--through education, research, and the training of advanced practitioners.

When Winston Churchill made a secret visit to Harvard in 1944, he was awarded an honorary degree in an extraordinary, historic ceremony. He also gave an address in Sanders Theatre, and said at one point, "The empires of the future will be empires of the mind."

Now, half a century later, that future has arrived. Empires of the mind are precisely what we are now creating. Let us do our utmost to ensure that they are humane empires, characterized by openness, inquiry, learning, and real-world effectiveness: empires dedicated to the freedom and prosperity of all people, everywhere.

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