University Arts Initiative Launched

President Drew Faust made the inaugural performance at the New College Theatre, on November 1, the setting for her announcement of...

President Drew Faust made the inaugural performance at the New College Theatre, on November 1, the setting for her announcement of a University-wide arts initiative. A faculty task force involving several Harvard schools has been chartered to examine in a fundamental way the role of arts and creativity in research universities, in liberal-arts education, and at Harvard. Thus, the task force will raise questions about the role of performance and artistic practice, the curricular implications of the answers to those queries, and the changes in administrative arrangements and facilities that might be entailed in implementing them. This appears to be the broadest such effort to examine the place of performing arts and artistic creation within the educational and teaching enterprise, inside the classroom and beyond (as compared to a purely extracurricular pursuit for thousands of students), since the 1950s.

The task force will be chaired by Cogan University Professor Stephen Greenblatt, general editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature as well as a playwright. Greenblatt is widely known for his research on Shakespeare and his milieu (see “The Mysterious Mr. Shakespeare,” September-October 2004). In recent years, he has been investigating Lucretius and analyzing his own writing for Expository Writing students (see “Writing as Performance,” September-October 2007). This fall, he introduced a new humanities general-education course that uses interactive and multimedia technologies to connect students with the burgeoning world cultures of the seventeenth century. Other members include Homi Bhabha, Rothenberg professor of the humanities and director of the Humanities Center (www.fas.harvard.edu/~humcentr); Diana Sorensen, Rothenberg professor of Romance languages and literatures and of comparative literature, and dean for the humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; Graduate School of Design dean Mohsen Mostafavi, whose brief at Cornell included the arts; leading figures from the Graduate School of Education, the Office for the Arts, the University Art Museums, and the American Repertory Theatre; and undergraduate and graduate students. (For the news release on the task force charge and membership, seewww.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2007/11.08/99-arts.html.)

Broad inquiries into creativity, work in the arts, and performance are taking place at several universities—with some making large commitments to such programs. At Harvard, this in part reflects interest in visual ways of thinking and communication, use of new digital tools, and developments in neuroscience and the understanding of cognition—a vision of arts and creative work as essential to the critical thinking the University has aimed to encourage. In part, it reflects the participation by contemporary students, particularly undergraduates, in a vast array of musical and theatrical performances—traditionally not part of Harvard’s academic, curricular landscape—as well as in creative writing and newly expanded work in film (see “Cinema Veritas,” November-December 2005).

Among peer institutions, Yale has perhaps the most fully developed curricular offerings, and has budgeted $500 million for its art museums and schools of architecture, art, drama, and music as part of its current capital campaign. The Stanford Arts Initiative, part of that university’s campaign, includes substantial investments in faculty growth, curriculum development, on-campus performance series, internships, and extensive new facilities. Princeton aims to fund an entire new arts precinct, designed by Renzo Piano, around its existing repertory theater company.

The new task force, which President Faust has asked to report in the fall of 2008 (comments can be sent to [email protected]), clearly has a huge assignment. Beyond considering fundamental questions about creative and critical thinking, it will want to look at how other institutions address the arts and performance as part of their academic missions. And, ultimately, it will want to make recommendations affecting expanded or new academic programs, faculty growth, and, likely, facilities—with implications ranging from the forthcoming renovation of the undergraduate residential Houses (Stanford hopes to insert arts facilities into each dormitory) to the broad plans for campus development in Allston. Those recommendations, in turn, will shape Harvard’s forthcoming capital campaign. In that sense, Faust has asked the task force to think both expansively and urgently, recognizing that its work could affect the design of teaching and learning across the campus, and of very the campus itself.

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