No borders, only frontiers

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust hymns the restless quest for wisdom that defines higher education's highest goals

September 16, 2010
Drew Gilpin Faust president Harvard University
Source: Harvard University

Prevailing discourse emphasises the university as a paramount player in a global system increasingly driven by knowledge, information and ideas. Knowledge is replacing other resources as the main engine of economic growth, and as the new knowledge economy is necessarily global, the reach of universities must be so, too.

Throughout higher education, borderless partnerships are flourishing as never before, improving learning and lives in dramatic ways. Often, universities' international initiatives are framed as a competitive necessity. But if these are competitions, they are ones in which everyone can win. As other institutions falter in dispiriting succession, universities nurture the hopes of the world: in solving challenges that cross borders; in unlocking new knowledge; in building cultural and political understanding; and in modelling environments that promote dialogue and debate.

Yet even as we marvel at higher education's global expansion, we see its future imperilled. We find that the global economic crisis has slowed our cross-border momentum. As the world oscillates between openness and insularity, many worry that we are entering a more inward-looking period, when national anxieties risk trumping international aspirations.

In the years following the 9/11 terror attacks, security concerns have inhibited ease of movement for many. And in the wake of the global recession, fears of economic competition have intensified resistance to immigration. Talent comes with many different passports. Yet, as we at universities work to attract the most promising and creative minds, we face the spectre of heightened impediments to border crossings, at a moment when higher education increasingly requires the free flow of talent and ideas.

The global recession has of course produced an even more direct threat — a financial one. While the knowledge economy draws fuel from the unprecedented growth of higher education, many university budgets face serious cutbacks, even as enrolments and expectations rise. Perhaps the most dramatic US example involves the University of California system, the gold standard of American public higher education, which was confronted with a 20 per cent budget cut this past fiscal year. Higher education in the UK and Ireland faces similar challenges. We are caught in the paradox of celebrating the global knowledge economy while simultaneously undermining its very foundations.

At such a time, 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. The intensely competitive global economy has driven governments to demand more immediate, tangible returns on their investments.

Too often, such an emphasis can mean especially painful cuts for disciplines whose value, though harder to measure, is no less real. As stewards of centuries-old traditions of higher learning, we must work to ensure that the understandable effort to promote what is valuable does 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 the kinds of enquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless scepticism 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, including empathy — how to picture ourselves inside another person's head, life, experience — and how to see the world through a different lens, which the study of the arts offers 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 fulfil the deep human desire to understand ourselves and the world we inhabit — even when there is no practical application close in view. It is worth remembering that the most transformative 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.

At the heart of the liberal arts and the humanities — and central to much scientific thought — is the capacity for interpretation, for making sense of the world. We are all bombarded with information. That is a defining aspect of the new global knowledge economy and the digital platforms on which it rests. American students spend almost every waking hour attached to some information-generating device — an iPhone, a BlackBerry, an iPad. They are tweeting or googling or instant messaging or emailing. What are they meant to do with all this information? How do they digest and evaluate it?

If we are to depend on a knowledge economy, how are we to understand what is actually knowledge, as contrasted with mere information? Education conceived only as an instrument of economic growth neglects the importance of developing such capacities; it ignores that some things are not about "facts" but are about meaning.

Such understanding lies at the essence of a university. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, it calls on us to figure out not just what can be counted, but what counts. It involves not only invention and discovery, but the rigours of reinventing, re-examining, rediscovering. It is about remembering what we have forgotten, about wisdom that must be stirred and awakened time and again, even in the wise.

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.

In 1986, Seamus Heaney composed Villanelle for an Anniversary for Harvard's 350th birthday. The poem begins with the spirit of founder John Harvard walking Harvard Yard. True to the villanelle form, its first, third and fifth stanzas each end with the same line: "The books stood open and the gates unbarred." But in the poem's last line, the refrain shifts from past to present: "The books stand open and the gates unbarred."

And so Heaney unites the past and present of learning, of higher education and of America's first university. He reminds us of the perpetuity of the university's essential foundations, its immortal spirit of openness and enquiry. In the 17th century, long before science split the atom, a tiny college on the edge of the American wilderness, a 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 urged, "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.

Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University. This essay is based on a speech she delivered to the Royal Irish Academy at Trinity College Dublin in June 2010

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