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The Affront of Relegation

From the 2000 Commencement address

9.1.00

In his remarks to the annual meeting of the Harvard Alumni Association on June 8, President Neil L. Rudenstine spoke about the moral concerns--and example--of the Commencement afternoon guest speakers, Seamus Heaney (text) and Amartya Sen (text). Though they are Nobel laureates in the very different realms of literature and economics, Rudenstine found in their work a common core of humanitarian inquiry and deep belief in freedom. Although the president's comments came between the two other speakers', his words serve as an apt introduction to both men and so an excerpt from his text here precedes Heaney's and Sen's addresses. Both men touch on the fears and needs of those left outside the successful workings of society. By implication, they challenge the people privileged to study and work within the confines of university communities to extend the boundaries of free inquiry enjoyed there.

~ The Editors

Seamus Heaney and Amartya Sen were each born in countries--Ireland and India--that have, during the last century, been torn by colonial strife, as well as by religious and political conflict. Both have lived international lives, remaining strongly attached to their homelands while also cultivating the kind of considered disinterestedness that comes from caring--but not caring so totally as to allow themselves to become imprisoned by

As a result, both Seamus and Amartya have continuously sought to expand their vision, to seek more inclusive as well as firmly grounded ideas concerning the essential elements of a healthy and just society. Both have clearly chosen not to be exiles--and certainly not expatriates. Instead, they have become purposeful wanderers and explorers, with deep roots at home, yet roots that have allowed them to flourish abroad....

Seamus Heaney's poetry has, inevitably, had to come to terms with the religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland....He has had to decide--under great pressure--how far to become engaged politically, or whether to leave his native city, Belfast. He has had to judge the moral weight that such choices might exert on the character of his life and the spirit-level of his verse. As a result, the complexity of the act of choosing, the importance of having the freedom to choose, and the need to understand the implications of one's choices have all had their bearing on the substance and the texture of his poetry.

Meanwhile, Amartya Sen's view of economics has...been grounded in moral philosophy and political theory; in problems of justice, of human and societal development, and of moral choice. He has worked to show how certain fundamental freedoms and rights...are essential for individual fulfillment, and for the functioning of a healthy society.

So, I think of both Seamus Heaney and Amartya Sen primarily as humanists,...always preoccupied with those questions with which the humanities, arts, and social sciences have traditionally been engaged: how...to live; how to define one's obligations and responsibilities, not only to society but to oneself; how to exercise one's freedoms and rights wisely; how to enable societies to be productive and also just; and finally, how to use words...precisely, faithfully, and lyrically, so that we do not sow even more confusion than already exists in the world....

If Heaney and Sen often pose similar questions, they also resemble one another in cherishing many of the same values--above all, the value of freedom. Neither of them views freedom as a promise of something without boundaries, something purely liberating.

Instead, they would characterize it as the opportunity to define one's own commitments among possible glimpsed alternatives. Freedom allows us to choose...the ways in which we ourselves wish to be bounded, pursuing whatever we believe might nurture greater hope and more communal trust.

~ Neil L. Rudenstine

 

"Book Learning"

by Seamus Heaney

 

In honor of the three open books on the Harvard crest, I'm going to read three short passages. They have to do with what was once upon a time called "book learning," with open access to that learning, and with the light that shines from it.

The student above the lamplit page is an immemorial image, of course, and I myself can remember doing school homework in that way in the unelectrified Ulster of the 1940s. But equally potent at this stage is an image I have from winter nights in Cambridge, in the 1980s. For most of that decade, I spent the first half of every year as a resident of Adams House, on the ground floor, in room I-12. And I'd look across Linden Street quite often in the evening into Claverly Hall, and there would always be a student room with the bright screen of a computer shining in some corner, and there, silhouetted against the brightness, there would be some student. So, although some things change, some things never quite change. The quill and the vellum may give way to the word processor and the mouse, but that solitary vigil, that unwavering pursuit of the key word and the elusive concept, that stays the same.

So I'm going to begin with a poem about a student wrapped in study, with his mind up against itself. The poem also involves a mouse, and in fact it involves a cat. The cat is called Pangur Ban, which means simply "white Pangur"--"ban" is the word for "white" in Irish. This poem was written in the Irish language by an Irish scribe in the late eighth or early ninth century on the margin of Saint Paul's Epistles in a monastery in Carinthia, in present-day Austria. The translation is by an English scholar called Robin Flower, and it's sometimes called "The Monk and His Cat."

I and Pangur Ban my cat,
'Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When we sit at home and find
Entertainment for our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

Against the wall he sets his eye
Fierce and strong and sharp and sly;
Against the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve those doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night,
Turning darkness into light.

 

Whether you are a freshman or a Faust, I think, those 32 lines will remind you of the frustration and satisfaction of hunting for a new understanding, or a new insight, and indeed, sometimes I think I'd prefer to have translated those 32 lines than the 32 hundred lines of Beowulf.

But I banish this thought quickly because, for all the Dark Age wintriness of Beowulf, it has its moments of illumination and brightness. So I want to focus for a little moment on a place in the poem where an eye once again looks in from the dark, into the brightness, not at Claverly Hall this time, but at the hall which was built by King Hrothgar in Denmark. Hrothgar establishes the light of order, civility, and art inside this hall, and the passage tells how the monster Grendel is circling in the dark, prowling, listening to the poet inside singing. (This comes from an early part of the poem.)

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth's lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved.

So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.

The hall where the minstrel sings can be understood as any site of spiritual vision, or artistic endeavor, or indeed, higher learning, and, as such, it is an image of both election and exclusion. In the introduction to Beowulf, I said it reminded me of Kilcolman Castle, in County Cork, where the English poet Edmund Spenser sat writing The Faerie Queene in the 1580s. But it might well remind someone else of the city of Boston, set upon its hill in early seventeenth-century Massachusetts, or the newly founded college library to which John Harvard bequeathed his books in Newetowne in the 1630s. And to be reminded of those places is to be reminded also that great foundations like them, and great institutions, not only hold promise of fulfillment for those within them, but they can prompt feelings of relegation in those outside them. We've learned, in other words, to look at John Winthrop through the eyes of the Native American; to take a Native Irish view of the English expropriations; and indeed, to take a Grendel's eye view of Beowulf.

Which doesn't mean that the good that these figures have stood for, and have done, need be interred, but it does mean that other aspects of the history they were a part of must be acknowledged.

Whatever else has happened in our time, there has been a recognition of the human affront of relegation and segregation, of the injustice of exclusion on the grounds of race or gender or class or economic status. So on the occasion of this millennial Commencement, let us resolve that the open books on the Harvard crest will continue to signify open access to the institution; openhandedness in those who succeed John Harvard--and there are many of them here today--as benefactors of the institution; and openmindedness in the faculty and student body.

I want to conclude with the poem I wrote for the 350th anniversary of the College, back in 1986, and I want to dedicate it today in particular to President Rudenstine, a president who has always made room for the minstrel in the hall, and has always been mindful of those on the outside looking in. He has done many wonderful things for Harvard, but what I, as a former scholarship boy, have greatly admired and been moved by personally is his determination to open the books and unbar the gates for every student who needs to get in.

This is "Villanelle for an Anniversary," written in 1986.

A spirit moved. John Harvard walked the yard.
The atom lay unsplit, the west unwon.
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

The maps dreamt on like moondust. Nothing stirred.
The future was a verb in hibernation.
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Before the classic style, before the clapboard,
All through the small hours of an origin,
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

Night passage of a migratory bird.
Wingbeat. Gownflap. Like a homing pigeon
A spirit moved, John Harvard walked the yard.

Was that his soul (look!) sped to its reward
By grace or works? A shooting star? An omen?
The books stood open and the gates unbarred.

Begin again where frosts and tests were hard.
Find yourself or founder. Here. Imagine
A spirit moves, John Harvard walks the yard.
The books stand open and the gates unbarred.

 

 

Global Doubts

by Amartya K. Sen

 

There is something extraordinarily exciting about good academic education. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than at Harvard. As teachers here, we all get used to astonishing brightness. Even before you have asked your question, your student proceeds to answer it, explaining modestly that her answer may have left room for doubt, going on to add--perhaps not so modestly--that the questions you chose to ask left even more room for doubt.

Indeed, the cultivation of doubts and the sharpening of questions are an integral part of university education. Its importance lies partly in the close connection between science and doubting. Francis Bacon distinguished between two different contributions that doubts can make, in his essay on The Advancement of Learning, published in 1605, nearly 400 years ago. "The registering and proposing of doubts has a double use," Bacon said. One use is straightforward: it guards us "against errors." The second use, Bacon argued, involved the role of doubts in initiating and furthering a process of inquiry, which has the effect of enriching our investigations. Issues that "would have been passed by lightly without intervention," Bacon noted, end up being "attentively and carefully observed" precisely because of the intervention of doubts.

The constructive value of doubts applies not only to science and to academic studies in general, but also to the assessment of public policy. Take the current debates on globalization, which have been so active in recent years--not just in Seattle or Washington, D.C., but also in less organized protestations in Bangkok and Jakarta and Mexico City and Abidjan and elsewhere. The case for global trade and worldwide use of modern technology and finance is strong--very strong. And yet we cannot begin to understand the intellectual content of these disputes without addressing the reasons that inspire the doubts and disputations.

Unfortunately, we frequently encounter a dialogue of the deaf here. Those who blame globalization for all evils are ready to turn their doubts into indictments which propose summary rejection, and which then get translated into over-simple slogans. Those on the other side, who believe that the anti-globalization rhetoric is ill founded, tend immediately to dismiss it as foolish--or worse. The two sides face each other like ships passing at night.

We have to question both sides. Opponents of globalization may see it as a new folly, but it is neither particularly new, nor, in general, a folly. It is largely an intensification of the processes of interaction involving travel, trade, migration, and dissemination of knowledge that have shaped the progress of the world over millennia. The polar opposite of globalization is persistent separatism and relentless autarky. There is a worrying image of seclusion that has been arrestingly invoked in many old Sanskrit texts in India (I know of four such texts, beginning about two and a half millennia ago, but there are undoubtedly many more references to the same concern). This is the story of a frog that lives its whole life within a well and is suspicious of everything outside it. This "kupamanduka"--the well-frog--has a world view, but it is a world view that is entirely confined to that well. The scientific, cultural, and economic history of the world would have been very limited had we lived like such well-frogs. This is an important issue, since there are plenty of well-frogs around --and also, of course, many attorneys of well-frogs.

The more immediate point, however, is that there is extensive evidence that the global economy has actually brought prosperity to many different areas of the globe. The productive and economic contributions of global integration can scarcely be denied. But we also have to recognize the enormous inequalities that exist across the globe and often within each country. Doubts about global economic relations come from different ends of the globe, and they are in this sense "global doubts"--not just an assortment of local opposition. We have to examine the manifest inequalities and disparities that give these global doubts the political salience they undoubtedly have. What is needed is not a rejection of the positive role of the market mechanism in generating income and wealth, but the important recognition that the market mechanism has to work in a world of many institutions. We need the power and protection of these institutions, provided by democratic practice, civil and human rights, a free and open media, facilities for basic education and healthcare, economic safety nets, and of course, provisions for women's freedom and rights--a neglected area which is only now beginning to receive the attention it deserves.

Let me give a few quick examples. First, a well-functioning market economy does not obviate the need for democracy and civil and political rights. The latter not only give people more freedom to live the way they would like (without being bossed around), they also allow people to have more voice to demand that their interests not be ignored. The fact that no famine has ever occurred in a democratic country with a free press and regular elections is only one rudimentary illustration of this connection. It is not surprising that the demand for democracy and for civil and political rights became much stronger in East and Southeast Asia as the economic crisis of 1997 developed and spread. Voice, as Albert Hirschman has discussed so well, is the alternative to exit. There is, of course, no basic conflict between economic globalization and the fostering of democracies. But quite often global capitalist institutions show distinct preference for orderly autocracies over the adversarial politics of democratic governance and the activist use of human rights.

To take a second issue, the ability to participate in the market economy is radically influenced by social arrangements for education, healthcare, microcredit, land reform, and other public policies. Furthermore, the sharing of the benefits of the market economy also depends on social institutions. This applies even to very prosperous countries. Take the deprivation of disadvantaged groups in the United States: for example, African Americans. It is often claimed that even though African Americans as a group are poorer than American whites, they are typically many times richer than people in the developing world. And so they are in income per head. But in terms of the probability of surviving to mature ages, African Americans in the United States fall behind the population of many Third World regions, including substantial parts of China and India. For this the blame is often put exclusively on death from violence, but the higher mortality rate of African Americans continues well beyond the ages when this can make any real difference. Lack of medical insurance has a role to play here, and so has the breakdown of inner-city education and other social arrangements. The unprecedented economic boom that the American economy has enjoyed has not resolved these problems.

Third, there is now overwhelming evidence that women's empowerment through schooling, employment opportunities, et cetera, has the most far-reaching effects on the lives of all--men, women, and children. It reduces child mortality; it cuts down health hazards of adults arising from low birth weight; it increases the range and effectiveness of public debates; and it is more influential than economic growth in moderating fertility rates. We can see its influence in the halving of the fertility rate of Bangladesh in less than two decades, and in the fact that while some districts of India have quite high fertility rates, others with more gender equity already have fertility rates lower than the United States and Britain. The reach of social institutions that work for gender equity is astonishingly large.

There is also a related point of great importance which John Kenneth Galbraith has made very forcefully. The role of institutions has to be assessed in terms of the "countervailing power" they exercise over one another. Asymmetric power in one domain can be checked by a different configuration of forces in another domain. All this--and more--was discussed in Galbraith's book American Capitalism, first published in 1952. I remember reading it as a college student in Calcutta, in a coffee house, while trying to resist being evicted by the waiter on the not unreasonable ground that I could not hog a chair and finish reading an entire book while consuming only one cup of coffee. On that occasion, I got through using only the countervailing power of my voice and determined immovability, but in general we need an institutional balance more far-reaching than that. Distribution of power in the world relates closely to institutional plurality.

This applies even to the institutional basis of world trade and finance, which includes, among other arrangements, such institutions as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and so on. It is necessary to reexamine the balance of power in the running of the different institutions that make up the global architecture. The present institutional architecture was largely set up in the middle 1940s, on the basis of the understanding of the needs of the world economy as interpreted in the Bretton Woods Conference, held just as the Second World War was coming to an end. That framework did help to foster trade and development, but not much distributional equity--either in the economic or in the political sphere. The world was, in fact, very different in the 1940s, when the bulk of Asia and Africa was still under colonial rule of one kind or another, when the tolerance of insecurity and of poverty was much greater (even the West had just emerged from a massive depression and a very destructive war), and when there was little understanding of the huge global prospects of democracy, economic development, and human rights in the world. The world of Bretton Woods is not the world of today.

Furthermore, even within the existing global architecture, the substantive policies followed by the principal institutions can make a big difference. For example, the recent changes in the policy priorities of the World Bank, with a much greater involvement with economic security and social development, have been undoubtedly influential. The existing institutions can address the global doubts more fully, and the United Nations can also play a very big role in forcing attention on these concerns. The UN has, of course, been kept in a state of financial precariousness particularly by member countries failing to pay their dues. There has also been a persistent attempt by some politicians to use ill-judged attacks on the functioning of the United Nations, trying their best to make a molehill out of a real mountain. But the mountain is there, and the UN can play a most important part in the institutional balance in global economics and politics, provided it gets the support it deserves.

The real debate on globalization is, ultimately, not about the efficiency of markets, nor about the importance of modern technology. The debate, rather, is about the inequality of power, for which there is much less tolerance now than in the world that emerged at the end of the Second World War. There may or may not be significantly more economic inequality today (the evidence on this is conflicting, depending on the indicators we use), but what is absolutely clear is that people are far less willing to accept massive inequalities now than they were in 1944. The global doubts partly reflect this new mood, and it is, to a great extent, the global equivalent of the within-nation protests with which we have been familiar for quite some time. The global doubts have something in common with the spirit of an old American song--a variant of a defiant verse composed originally by Leadbelly:

In the home of the brave, land of the free,
I will not be put down by no bourgeoisie.

Attacks on globalization come from different quarters, in dissimilar styles, with disparate grumbles. It is not at all difficult to reject many of the criticisms that have been made, and it is right that rejectable points should be repulsed. But there is a basic need to recognize that despite the big contributions that a global economy can undoubtedly make to global prosperity, we also have to confront the far-reaching manifestations of global inequality.

Many years ago, in the 1950s, when the present phase of globalization was in its infancy, an English friend of mine told me, after visiting India, that he was struck by the fact that the language of trade and commerce was so different in different countries. He had gone to a candy shop in New Delhi to buy sweets for his children and found two glass jars, full of candies, prominently displayed in the shop. One described the contents, in bold letters, as "Superior," and the other said, also in bold letters: "Inferior." My English friend was not yet ready for such plain speaking; he would have expected the second jar to be called "regular," or "standard," or something like that.

In the growing intolerance of inequality on which the global doubts draw, there is something of a similar inclination to recognize and react to disparities--not only in terms of affluence but also in terms of power. What may have looked like "regular" or "standard" inequality in 1944 appears more and more as an intolerable imposition of inferiority on hundreds of millions of people. This recognition does not, of course, validate all the slogans on the placards and posters of antiglobalization rhetoric. Nor can it be seen as an invitation to become well-frogs. Nor, indeed, does it obviate the need for critical examination of institutional reform and policy initiatives.

There can be no holiday from scientific scrutiny in answering questions. But in deciding on what questions to ask, what problems demand attention, we cannot ignore the voices of concern--and of humanity. We cannot, to use Francis Bacon's words, let these broader doubts pass "lightly without intervention." The significance of the global doubts lies in the themes, not in the theses. These doubts may often take a critically destructive form, but their ultimate importance is constructive. We cannot ignore that importance any more than we can neglect the positive contributions of globalization.