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Speaking Frankly, at West Point

July-August 2016

Drew Faust gave one of the signal speeches of her Harvard presidency at West Point this past March. The subject was education in the humanities—and in leadership. Her talk brought to the fore common Faust themes: immersion in the arts and humanities and learning to think critically about values. The venue and format (a formal address, rather than the occasions where an interlocutor poses questions, and Faust’s answers are briefer) made a difference.

At the United States Military Academy (USMA), as Faust noted, “the humanities are resources that build ‘self-awareness, character, [and] perspective,’ and enable leaders to compel and to connect with others.” She identified three ways in which that occurs. “First,” she said, “leaders need perspective”—the historical and cultural lenses that clarify a situation through “empathy: how to see ourselves inside another person’s experience. How to picture a different possibility.” Second, “leaders need the capacity to improvise. I often point out that education is not the same thing as training for a job.…Circumstances evolve. Certainly, soldiers know…that our knowledge needs to be flexible, as we grapple with complexity in an instant.” Third, she emphasized how leaders like Churchill and Lincoln “use the persuasive power of language.”

Two broad applications to Harvard come to mind. One concerns transitions. West Point, Faust noted, was “the nation’s first college of engineering.” Now, even as “other institutions drop liberal-arts requirements, military academies have been adding them. Over the past 50 years, West Point has transformed its curriculum into a general liberal-arts education, graduating leaders with broad-based knowledge of both the sciences and the humanities, and the ability to apply that knowledge in a fluid and uncertain world.” The College, grounded as it has been in the traditional liberal arts, is very much tilting the other way, expanding engineering and applied sciences, and inspiriting entrepreneurship. That prompts anxieties about waning student interest in humanities and adults’ responsibility to assure that their charges are broadly, not merely vocationally, educated.

The related relevant point is the composition of General Education. Recent reforms melded approaches meant to reinforce the civic intent of Gen Ed courses; maximize students’ freedom of course selection; and somehow squeeze in a distribution requirement. Much less attention was paid to the pedagogical aims of those requirements.

As the faculty deliberated, Nicholas Lemann ’76 wrote “What Should Graduates Know?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Drawing on his decanal experiences remaking the curriculum of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, he suggested that colleges need to specify what they are for (lest they become excessively vocational by default). As a “quick list of possibilities” for an undergraduate curriculum, he suggested “instruction around a set of master skills that together would make one an educated, intellectually empowered, morally aware person.” Among them: “Rigorous interpretation of meaning, taught mainly through close reading of texts. Numeracy, including basic statistical literacy. Pattern and context recognition. Developing and stating an argument, in spoken and written form.” And so on, through “Empathetic understanding of other people and other cultures.”

Lemann is also a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ new Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. Bracingly, upriver from Lemann’s school, the USMA course catalog states an “Educational Philosophy.” It details such academic goals as communication skills; critical thinking and creativity; lifelong learning; ethical reasoning; and subject-matter expertise in STEM fields and humanities and social sciences.

Gen Ed embraces some language about such purposes. But they were not the subject of the recent debate, and the faculty is unlikely to revisit the principles before the next iteration of the curriculum—around the quarter-century mark. Even when that happens, Harvard presidents are careful to give faculty members their head in such matters. But surely there was, and perhaps still is, an opportunity to engage more fully with these critical issues in the interim, on campus. It would be good for students and professors to hear more from the president, directly; as her West Point remarks attest, she has plenty to say, and forcefully. This is a conversation the community ought to have.

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