Scholarship and the Role of the University: Remarks at the Boston College Sesquicentennial

Boston College, Boston, Mass.

Thank you, Father Leahy, members of the faculty, students, friends, and distinguished guests.  I am deeply honored to be with you today at Boston College to receive the Sesquicentennial Medal, and to celebrate this great university.  I confess, I traveled the 5 miles from Cambridge to Chestnut Hill with some trepidation.   A Mass for 20,000 at Fenway Park, complete with Fenway Franks, is a hard act to follow. 

Nearly fifty years ago Harvard’s President Pusey traveled the same 5 miles to celebrate the Boston College Centennial and brought, as he put it, the “discouraging word” that the “common task” our universities share “does not get easier with the passing centuries.”  This may be even truer now than it was in 1963.  We live in a world of information and ideas that circulate with almost instantaneous ease.  We know that knowledge is becoming more and more vital to our societies, and that our economic prosperity depends as never before on discoveries born in institutions such as ours. And yet we still rely on universities, not merely to create economic value, but as President Pusey put it, to “build value into our common life.”

Your own Reverend Himes observed in his eloquent remarks at Fenway Park that, and I quote him, “Education is the process through which we become more fully human, and also more like God.”  It is a welcome perspective in a world where the measure of things so often trumps the meaning of things, and the practical, immediate uses of knowledge so often overshadow the larger, more enduring purposes of education.  I want today on this great occasion for Boston College to speak about those larger purposes, and the vital role that universities play in defining aspirations and possibilities for the long term. 

When the Governor of Massachusetts signed the charter to establish Boston College in April of 1863, it was a bright moment in a dark hour – at the mid-point of an escalating Civil War. So much was at stake – our fundamental understandings of freedom and citizenship, equality and nationhood – and much was uncertain, especially for young Americans.  We imagine with effort that frightening spring 150 years ago when on a single Virginia battlefield in May’s first week, some 30,000 young men became casualties, nearly as many as the number of students who sought admission last spring to each of the Boston College and Harvard College classes of 2016.

Such drastic upheaval also created a critical moment for higher education.  Then, as now, the struggle for freedom and opportunity came with a yearning for education, and Boston was a cauldron of energy and creativity.  As Father John McElroy was creating this Jesuit college in the South End for the sons of Irish immigrants, others were working to establish a polytechnic school in the Back Bay called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded to spur advancements in science and technology.  And in those same years, a senior member of Congress from Vermont – determined, as he put it, to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes” – laid the foundation for America’s land grant universities with the Morrill Act of 1862, one of the most transformational pieces of legislation in American history. President Lincoln signed it into law to create the nation’s great public universities, dedicated to education in the public service, changing assumptions not only about what education was for, but about who it was for. 

And that was just the beginning.  A post-war generation of reformers, led by university presidents, including Harvard’s Charles William Eliot, launched a movement inspired by the German ideal of the research university.  The Johns Hopkins University, founded as a new graduate and professional school in 1876, opened without a college at all, offering a new model for others eager to update American higher education. And Harvard created its graduate programs, designed to advance knowledge along the lines of the emerging disciplines, with their defined and compelling intellectual purposes.

Reformers pushed for a shift away from Latin and Greek and the classical curriculum, a supplanting of traditional moral and spiritual perspectives with the rationalistic tenets of modern science.  The result would become the modern university, emphasizing graduate training based not on what President Eliot called “books merely,” or the dogma of accepted wisdom, but on research and the empirical and scientific method – what Eliot termed “the seeing eye and … informing fingers.”

But where, in all this, would the teaching of character survive?  What would happen to those institutions that had molded human beings and taught shared values centered around a core curriculum and, often, a religious faith?  At most mid-nineteenth century colleges, the president offered a course in moral philosophy to seniors, a task which at Harvard today survives only in vestigial form in the fleeting moment of the president’s annual baccalaureate address.

But the paradigm of the emerging research university challenged the dominance of the moral education of the classical college – the kind of values-based learning that institutions like Boston College held as the cornerstone of an educated life.   What place was there for the question: What does it mean to be a human being? A citizen? What did the pursuit of truth have to do, if anything, with serving others?  What after all was higher education for?

For many aspiring and idealistic scholars in this era, the spiritual came to lodge in their search for knowledge for its own sake, knowledge apart from its practical or instrumental uses.  Especially in what was widely seen to be an increasingly materialistic age, the affirmation of the transcendent purposes of learning came to seem imperative.  The great Cardinal Newman captured the dichotomy, opposing what he called “useful knowledge” with the “liberal knowledge” that was valuable, as he put it, “for … its very presence in us … even [without] any direct end.”

Were these elements in necessary tension?  How could they be joined or reconciled?  And how did knowledge, pursued either for its immediate utility or for its own sake, relate to the living of a life?

In Boston, the argument played out between Boston College and Harvard, in a battle of words whose fierceness would have done the Beanpot rivalry proud.  By 1899, President Eliot had dismissed what he saw as traditionalist approaches to education, touting instead a new elective system of course selection tailored around individual inclinations and fulfillment.  In a forceful rebuttal, the Reverend Timothy Brosnahan, Boston College’s president from 1894-98, dismissed the elective system as a travesty that, as he put it, “banishes unity from college education … committing the whole embarrassment to the individual student, who … casts it aside with the ease and grace of youth. ... By contrast,” he continued, Boston College “undertakes to mould the character of the boy.” As one commentator observed, “There is a fight for supremacy … between two great systems of teaching.”

President Eliot is regarded as perhaps Harvard’s greatest and most transformative president, and the American research university has emerged as a model for higher education around the globe.  But Father Brosnahan nevertheless had a point, one that retains its relevance.  Many college presidents derided the elective system as “haphazard” and “chaotic.” Today, Harvard’s recently adopted General Education curriculum, with its detailed requirements and its explicit purpose of relating the arts and sciences to undergraduates’ “lives and to the world that they will confront,” would seem to nod more to Father Brosnahan than to President Eliot.  Father Brosnahan perceived a threat to the unity of truth that undergirded college curricula, a unity that would erode beneath the growing power of science, and, despite the efforts of Eliot and others, yield to what Harvard historian Julie Reuben has called the “marginalization of morality” in early 20th-century higher education.  Fact and value would no longer so easily align.  Today, colleges and universities continue to explore a perennial question of learning – how to advance both knowledge and character, to simultaneously embrace intellectual and ethical truth, disinterested inquiry and principled commitment.

Before many decades had passed, the debate began to focus more directly not just on what higher learning is for, but on who it is for. For most of its history, higher education did not belong to all of us, or even very many of us. For its first 233 years, Harvard had no black alumni. Women at Harvard were separated into Radcliffe College until the late 20th century.  Had I entered Radcliffe, I would not have been permitted in Harvard’s undergraduate library.   But American colleges and universities slowly began to open higher learning to students from virtually all backgrounds and circumstances, across lines of geography and income, ethnicity and gender.  After World War II, the G.I. Bill made elite higher education broadly accessible for the first time, serving more than two million veterans.  Minorities and women gradually passed through the gates, until today across U.S. higher education, women receive 57% of all bachelor’s degrees.  Roughly one-third of the Harvard and Boston College classes of 2016 are minority students.

And now we have come to recognize higher education as the foundation for prosperity and success in a rapidly changing, technology-driven global economy. Education has long been a critical avenue to full participation in our society – the primary driver of social mobility and of the well-being and prosperity of individuals and of nations.  This is the case now more than ever. Higher education is becoming almost a prerequisite for economic security – by 2018, an estimated 63% of all American jobs will require post-secondary education or training. Americans with a bachelor’s degree earn 84% more over a lifetime than those with a high school diploma – up from 75% more in 1999.  And Americans with college degrees are far less likely to be unemployed.  According to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, nearly four out of every five jobs that disappeared in the recession were held by workers with a high school diploma or less.

Yet this leads us to ask once again, and in a new way, who and what is higher education for?  The debates of our predecessors can alert us to what is and what has been at stake – to issues that still reverberate at the heart of our institutional purposes.  When we ask, as they did, who higher education is for, it is clear we have come a long way since Father McElroy sought to provide opportunities for the sons of Irish immigrants or even since Harvard President James Conant established the Harvard National Scholarships in the middle of the Great Depression. We seek to serve talented students of every race, gender, ethnicity – as well as those from even the most limited financial circumstances. In this realm, our challenge now is to be able to deliver on the promise that education represents and to make sure that it is available and affordable. This may be a difficult goal to achieve, but it is not a difficult one to define.

But the second question: what education is for. This is the quandary – and, in some ways, even a danger. The instrumental necessity for higher education – the hope it offers so many for a materially better life, for social mobility and prosperity – is compelling, especially in a time of economic uncertainty.  This is a case that is easy to make; the promise of jobs and economic growth has widespread appeal. But we must not let the clarity and measurability of the economic case for higher education lead us to abandon the more difficult work of explaining – and embracing – higher education’s broader purposes.  By focusing on education exclusively as an engine of material prosperity, we risk distorting and even undermining all a university should and must be.  We cannot let our need to make a living overwhelm our aspiration to lead a life worth living.  We must not lose sight of what President Kennedy, speaking at the Boston College centennial, referred to as “the work of the university … the habit of open concern for truth in all its forms.”

The Jesuit tradition has been deeply committed to this work, to the principle that an education is not just about knowledge, but also about how to live a life.  Boston College has for 150 years sustained this tradition, founded in empathy, outreach, and service.  As Reverend Brosnahan argued in his rebuttal to President Eliot, the elective system “might produce experts, but [it] could not develop a man.”  Boston College graduates are asked to carry forward that larger sense of purpose, in the words of Father Leahy, by “shaping the future … with a sense of calling, with concern for all of the human family.”

And yet we remain in danger of imperiling the powers of higher education to accomplish those ends. In the rush to apply knowledge to the world’s problems, we lose sight of fundamental questions.  We devalue the kinds of inquiry that slowly build the humane perspective – the critical eye, curiosity and skepticism, the habits of the restless mind that yield our deepest understandings.  In our need to know the facts, indeed, bombarded by facts, we forget the fact that we are all interpreters, who need not just information, but meaning.  In focusing narrowly on the present, we cut ourselves off from the past and the future, blinded to the long view that has always been the special realm of higher learning.  How can we create minds capable of innovation if they cannot imagine a world different than the one we inhabit?  How can institutions fixated on utility nurture the open spirit of the liberal arts, especially those fields, the arts and the humanities, devoted to questions of interpretation and meaning? How are we to regard the 20% decline in humanities concentrators – what we call majors – at Harvard in the past decade in the context of the urgent need for these disciplines in a 21st-century world? Think of the constant re-assessment of facts required by the field of law, or the scholarly re-imagining of Lucretius or Shakespeare, made new for each generation, or the implications of new science and technology for how we understand what it means to be human.

The scholarship that has served as the beating heart of the research university is exploration based on curiosity. It fosters imagination, the human ability, as J.K. Rowling put it in her 2008 Harvard Commencement address, “to envision that which is not … enabl[ing] us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” 

And scholarship not only requires empathy, it teaches empathy – as a capacity and a skill as well as a virtue.  I experience this in my own work as a historian.  To hold a letter from the Civil War era in my hands inspires me to imagine myself in a different life; it transports me in time and space, and forms an implicit commentary on my own assumptions. Their mortality is no different from mine; we share a common humanity across 150 years.  Yet their ways of living and dying were so very different.  What do I understand newly about myself by seeing that so much of what I am might be otherwise? Such meditations lie outside the torrents of Tweets and blogs and instant information.  They exist in the domain of slow and painstaking research, of the free and unfettered search for understanding. Without such scholarship, without zones of contemplation, with only prescribed purposes and goals, we will underemphasize the questions that most concern us, our lives, our mysteries.  We will gradually amputate that process, as Reverend Himes called it, “through which we become more fully human.”

The capacity for interpretation and re-invention lies at the heart of the liberal arts.  It is fundamental to the humanities. And it is central as well to much of scientific thought. Curiosity-driven fields illuminate the cosmic past as well as the human past – the quest for the Higgs boson and the origins of the universe or the discovery that there was once water on Mars.  In Britain it is often referred to as “blue skies research,” exploration for its own sake – without immediate application or any identifiable economic potential. That phrase is derived from the seminal example of British physicist John Tyndall, who in 1869 asked, literally, why the sky is blue.  Using a test tube, vapors, and a powerful beam of light, he devised an answer, with no idea that his discovery would also show how light can follow a curve and lead to the invention of the flexible gastroscope and bronchoscope and a host of other advances.

Curiosity in fact often generates serendipity – and turns out to be more useful than was ever intended. Take the case of the two Bell Lab astronomers who, in trying to get rid of what they thought was static in their space-mapping antenna, stumbled onto cosmic background radiation, a key piece of evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe. Or Alexander Fleming, the biologist who discovered penicillin by accident.  He called it, “sometimes find[ing] what you are not looking for.”

At their best, universities maintain a creative tension, tackling the purposeful and the apparently pointless with equal delight – from the eating habits of the vampire squid to the nature of empire to the technology for optimal vaccine delivery. We must continue to nurture that creative tension.  We must value it and encourage it, and assure its place in the structures and modes of academic inquiry and in our understanding of the university’s fundamental purposes. Because sometimes the best path to short-term goals is through the unplanned byways of the long-term perspective.  We need both.  We must remember that in this age of “outcomes” and measured “impact” that the means and processes of learning and of intellectual exploration have importance in themselves. 

The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges once said, “We do not read to discover the end. … Reading is felicity.”  We like results. We appreciate answers.  But to paraphrase Borges, we do not learn in order to discover the end.  Learning has no end.  We perhaps learn most when we come ultimately not to an answer, but to a better question.

Universities are a set of institutions unlike any others in our society. Certainly our budgets must balance, our operations must be efficient, but we are not about the bottom line, not about just the next quarter, not even about who our graduates are the day they leave our walls.  Our task is to illuminate the past and shape the future, to define human aspirations for the long term.  How can we look past the immediate and the useful, beyond what I have called the “myopic present,” to address the larger conundrum of: How shall we best live? Who do I want to be today – and tomorrow? To discover not only the ways in which human civilization plans to get somewhere, but to ask the question, Where does it – and where should it – hope to go?

Just about a month ago now, I stood on the battlefield at Antietam, a participant in a different Sesquicentennial, that of the bloodiest day in American history, a battle that claimed some 6,500 lives.  A tragic day, yet a day that transformed the nation, yielding the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and a path toward Union victory and a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  That proposition and the closely related desire to expand both personal and national opportunity produced the ferment for education that found one expression here in Boston in the founding of this institution.  A young Union soldier named Michael Leary returned home to this city from the war to become a laborer and a junk dealer.  But while he was away, serving his nation, the idea of a college for the sons and grandsons of Irish immigrants had become a reality. His two sons James and Henry would attend Boston College and they too would serve, for both became Jesuit priests.

Boston College has opened vistas and possibilities for tens of thousands of individuals like James and Henry Leary.  And it has challenged them to think about the good they can do with their education and their lives. Yours is a great university, an institution that in a century and a half has never lost sight of its larger purposes.  It is a privilege to celebrate with you that singular achievement and to honor the Jesuit commitment to scholarship, justice, and service. They are all needed today just as urgently as they were 150 years ago. 

Thank you so very much.