The Case for Universities

President Faust on valuing what is invaluable, pursuing meaning, and supporting both "science" and "poetry"

In a June 30 address to the Royal Irish Academy at Trinity College, Dublin, where she was made an honorary member (earlier, she also met with alumni), President Drew Faust reemphasized her vision of the place of research universities “in a changing and globalizing world.” She first began spelling out these themes in her installation address, in October 2007 (see also the report on the events accompanying the installation). Given her message and the setting (her full text is available here), she illustrated her point with a Harvard anecdote:

Our current situation brings to mind the observation of Harvard’s distinguished and beloved scholar of Irish history and literature John Kelleher, whose quick wit some of you might remember. Professor Kelleher once commented as he reviewed a folder for the admissions committee, “This student is exceptionally well-rounded. But the radius is very narrow.” I am not sure exactly what the student lacked, but his proportions were clearly off, a principle that appeals to our intuitions about what education is for.

One argument for universities’ role is economic, Faust noted: “We live in a time when knowledge is ever more vital to our societies and economies, in a world of rapidly circulating capital and people and of revolutionary communication technologies. Knowledge is replacing other resources as the main driver of economic growth, and education has increasingly become the foundation for individual prosperity and social mobility.”  The effects are both social and individual, she said—so it comes as no surprise that students and faculty members are increasingly traveling the world in pursuit of higher-education opportunities, or that developing nations like China and India are investing heavily so increasing proportions of their populations can enroll in colleges and universities.

At the same time, paradoxically, she observed, the global recession has put higher education under financial pressure: “While the knowledge economy drives and indeed requires the unprecedented growth of higher education, in many places university budgets decline, and courses, faculty and opportunities are cut back, even as enrollments and expectations rise. In the United States, perhaps the most dramatic example involves the University of California system, the gold standard of American public higher education. Shortfalls in state revenues led to a 20 percent cut in the universities’ budget this past fiscal year. Faculty and staff have faced furloughs, layoffs and salary reductions; students have seen significant tuition increases and diminished numbers of available places. And as I am sure you know well, higher education in the United Kingdom faces similar challenges. Last week’s emergency budget generated fears of funding reductions of as much as 25 percent.” The schizophrenic result: “We are…celebrating the global knowledge economy and simultaneously undermining its very foundations.”

Sustaining "Our Support for What Is Invaluable"

Beyond these near-term and pragmatic concerns, Faust put universities’ ultimate social role in the broad context that seems fundamental to her view of higher education and the search for knowledge:

There is a danger that the focus on higher education as the fundamental engine of economic growth is proving so powerful that it will distort our understanding of all that universities should and must be. Such assumptions can, for example, encourage a devaluation of basic scientific research, of investigation that may not yield immediate payoffs or solve concrete problems. There is widespread concern in the United States at present about patterns of government research funding that advantage conventional, risk-free proposals—what Thomas Kuhn might have called “normal science”—over less predictable, more ambitious and possibly paradigm-shifting endeavors. The intensely competitive global economy has driven governments, everywhere critical partners to higher education, to demand more immediate, tangible returns on their investments.

Too often such an emphasis on the short term can mean especially painful cuts for disciplines whose value, though harder to measure, is no less real. In a series of passionate recent exchanges in the press, British and American scholars have deplored cost-saving measures that have eliminated Britain’s only professorship of paleography, terminated offerings in philosophy at Middlesex University, and dramatically cut back the teaching of history prior to 1900 at Sussex. The eminent Oxford historian Keith Thomas concludes in the Sunday Times that “the position of non STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] subjects is seriously threatened.” Yet as Salters Sterling recently reminded us in the Irish Times, “Any government worth its salt must be every bit as concerned with the humanities as with technologies.”

As stewards of centuries-old traditions of higher learning, we must work to assure that the understandable effort to promote what is valuable not eclipse our support for what is invaluable. When we define higher education’s role principally as driving economic development and solving society’s most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of broader questions, of the kinds of inquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless skepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge. Too narrow a focus on the present can come at the expense of the past and future, of the long view that has always been higher learning’s special concern. How can we create minds capable of innovation if they are unable to imagine a world different from the one in which we live now? History teaches contingency; it demonstrates that the world has been different and could and will be different again. Anthropology can show that societies are and have been different elsewhere—across space as well as time. Literature can teach us many things, but not the least of these is empathy—how to picture oneself inside another person’s head, life, experience—how to see the world through a different lens, which is what the study of the arts offers us as well. Economic growth and scientific and technological advances are necessary but not sufficient purposes for a university. And within the domain of science, universities have a distinctive obligation to nurture and fulfill the deep human desire to understand ourselves and the world we inherit and inhabit, from the smallest elementary particle to the sweep of the galaxies—even when there is no practical application close in view and even as we rightly accelerate our efforts to harvest new technologies from knowledge in its most basic form. It is worth remembering that the most transformatively useful of scientific discoveries often trace their origins to research born of sheer curiosity about who we are and how we can fathom the most intriguing mysteries of the natural world.

"The Capacity for…Making Meaning"

The central method of pursuing such mysteries, Faust said, is imparting "the capacity for interpretation, for making meaning and making sense out of the world around us. We are all bombarded with information.…If we are to depend on a knowledge economy, how are we to understand what is actually knowledge—or, we might say, signal—as contrasted with what is mere information—what we would call noise? Education measured only as an instrument of economic growth neglects the importance of developing such capacities. It misses the fact that we are all interpreters; it ignores that some things are not about 'facts' but about understanding and meaning."

As illustrations she put forth:

  • The Honorable David H. Souter's argument, in his June Commencement address, that Supreme Court justices have to balance conflicting Constitutional values and weigh facts in their historical context (“they have to choose, not on the basis of measurement, but of meaning”).
  • Paul Volcker's argument that much of the recent economic mischef proceeded from the false belief that the “thinking embedded in mathematics and physics could be directly adapted to financial markets,” which, as he put it, are “not driven by changes in natural forces but by human phenomena, with all their implications for herd behavior…swings in emotion, and…political…uncertainties.”
  • And from her own most recent research, published in This Republic of Suffering, on the toll of deaths during the Civil War, "[H]istory is of course not just an accumulation of information; it is ineluctably interpretive.…[H]istory does not actually 'tell' us anything.  The historian tells us about history." As a result, she said, "The foundation of the book is investigative—it ends with 50 pages of footnotes—but the force of the book is interpretive."

"This kind of understanding," Faust said, "lies at the essence of a university.…It is about understanding the world and ourselves not only through invention and discovery, but also through the rigors of re-inventing, re-examining, reconsidering." Countering the mere accumulation of data points—the argument that to count, something has to be counted—she maintained, "To borrow a phrase often attributed to Albert Einstein, it is about figuring out what counts as well as what can be counted.  Meaning is about remembering what we have forgotten, now in a new context; it is about hearing and seeing what is right in front of us that we could not before hear or see; it is about wisdom that must be stirred and awakened time and again, even in the wise."

In this context, she said, "An overly instrumental model of the university misses the genius of its capacity. It devalues the zone of patience and contemplation the university creates in a world all but overwhelmed by stimulation. It diminishes its role as an asker of fundamental questions in a world hurrying to fix its most urgent problems. We need both."

"Look to Science and to Poetry"

In her conclusion, Faust reached for a text and a moment that have particular resonance both for Harvard and for Ireland—summoning the University's 350th anniversary and its impending 375th in 2011, and the great poet Seamus Heaney, Litt.D. ’98, a Nobel laureate (see Harvard Magazine's profile of Heaney here, and read a report on his 2000 Commencement address here):

I have learned that modern Ireland chose as the designated word for “professor” the old Irish term “ollamh," the name for the highest rank of ancient Gaelic poets. I do not know the reason, but I can guess. Poets are acute interpreters, fluent in meaning. Among the best of our time is Seamus Heaney, Harvard’s former Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory, beloved in Massachusetts as in Ireland—something of Irish and something of Harvard.

In 1986, Seamus Heaney composed a villanelle in honor of Harvard’s 35oth anniversary and read it before those assembled to celebrate. The poem begins with a spirit—the spirit of John Harvard—walking Harvard Yard. In the convention of the villanelle form, its first stanza, then its third and fifth, each end with the same line: “The books stood open and the gates unbarred.” But in the poem’s last line, the conclusion of the sixth stanza, Heaney breaks convention by changing the verb tense of the refrain from past to present: “The books stand open and the gates unbarred.” The shift unites the past and present of learning, of higher education and of America’s first university. Heaney’s deviation from form suggests to me that he may have indeed intended to emphasize what I am disposed to see—the perpetuity of these essential foundations—this immortal spirit—of openness, inquiry and access that have defined and must continue to define universities. In the seventeenth century, long before science split the atom, before America’s triumphal expansion to a distant western coast, a tiny college on the edge of the wilderness, product of this earlier age of global expansion, offered the freedom of learning, the open gates of access to knowledge. And today, one year short of 375 years later, centuries’ more knowledge has opened for argument; gates have widened to all from around the world. “Begin again,” Heaney urges, “where frosts and tests were hard./Find yourself.” Look to the past to help create the future. Look to science and to poetry. Combine innovation and interpretation. We need the best of both. And it is universities that best provide them.



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