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Commencement Address

Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

“Some Thoughts on Undergraduate Education”

As prepared for delivery


This has been a good year for the University. We continue to make first-rate faculty appointments, adding more women and promoting more senior faculty from within our ranks; we are completing a major research building and launching new programs in the life sciences; we continue the process of acquisition and planning for Allston; and, for the first time, we are making funding available to all graduate students at the University up to the cost of attendance.

None of this would be possible without the support — tangible, intellectual, and moral — of our alumni. Thank you.


I plan to focus my remarks today on Harvard College, as we embark on the most comprehensive examination of undergraduate education in a generation.

In the course of the presidential search, members of the Corporation and Board of Overseers consulted broadly with members of the Harvard community on questions of priorities for the future. As I talked with the search committee and, once I arrived, it became clear to me that there was a strong and pervasive sense among students, faculty, and alumni that we needed to take a systematic look at the education and experience of our undergraduates.

When Bill Kirby became dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences a year ago, he and I agreed that there was no more important priority for the university than renewing undergraduate education. No more important priority for a number of reasons —

  • Because Harvard College lies at the center of the University, whose strength depends on the strength of the College.
  • Because no organization — certainly not one as creative as Harvard College — should go more than a generation without reassessment and renewal.
  • Because much has changed since the last time undergraduate education was examined and restructured. When the Core Curriculum was debated in the 1970s the defining division in the world was between communism and capitalism, and the calculator had only recently replaced the slide rule.
  • Because whatever we do to educate our undergraduates, we cannot do it for reasons of inertia or even tradition. Our educational philosophy must reflect the forward-looking judgment of today’s faculty and students.

Above all, renewing the Harvard College experience is important because there is little that defines a society so directly as the ideas and values of those who hold positions of leadership. And those ideas and values are shaped in no small part by the education our leaders receive in and out of the classroom.

Four times in the last one hundred years or so the University has embarked on similar projects of renewal — in the eras of Presidents Eliot, Lowell, Conant, and Bok. Each of these redefinitions had far-reaching implications not just for the University but for higher education and society more generally. I believe the same will be true for the project on which we are now embarked.

* * * * *

We begin this consideration of undergraduate education from a position of strength. We have an outstanding faculty by any measure, and each of our classes comprises a remarkable group of young people drawn from across the nation, and increasingly, from around the world.

Trends toward greater excellence and openness that have defined Harvard since President Conant’s era continue apace. Last year, with 2,000 spaces to offer, we received applications from 3,100 valedictorians. Over a third of next year’s entering class will be minority students, and we admitted more than one hundred and fifty citizens from other countries.

To defend out commitment to diversity, we filed an amicus brief in the Michigan cases now pending before the Supreme Court. Going forward, I hope that we can extend our diversity by seeking out more actively students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and top students from around the world.

Notwithstanding our demonstrable strengths, we have room for improvement. Amidst the hundreds of pages of letters that poured in from students, faculty and alumni in response to Dean Kirby’s outreach, several issues were cited frequently:

  • Concern over the lack of direct engagement between senior faculty and undergraduate students;
  • The uneven quality of advising;
  • The sharp divide between curricular and extracurricular involvements; and
  • The inflexibility of the curriculum brought about by the overlapping requirements of demanding concentrations and, in the view of many, an excessively rigid notion of the Core.

Sorting out how we are to deal in concrete terms with these and other issues is the task that lies before the faculty next year and beyond under the able leadership of Deans Kirby and Gross. Today, I would simply like to offer some aspirations for this undertaking.

First, in a project as ambitious as the curricular review now underway, it is easy to lose sight of the “knower” as we strive to agree on what should be known. As teachers we are here for our students. In thinking about what we do at Harvard College, let us above all be guided by what will best prepare them for the challenging world that lies ahead.

The only true measure of a successful educational model is our students’ experience of it. I was thus moved and troubled by a recent letter from a science concentrator admitted to the top graduate programs in his field, which contained the statement: “I am in my eighth semester of college, and there is not a single science professor here who could identify me by name.”

All of us share a vital interest in ensuring that our students experience the singular educational benefits that flow from direct sustained engagement with members of our faculty.

Second, I hope we will look to the strengths of our students’ experience in the extracurriculum as we contemplate new curricular approaches. We regularly learn in senior surveys that our students are satisfied with and proud of their experience at Harvard. But both objectively and relative to their peers at other institutions, they are more satisfied with their outside activities than with their academic experience.

As Samuel Eliot Morison observed, the distinctive genius of the American college is that it is “a place which is neither a house of learning nor a house of play, but a little of both; and withal a microcosm of the world in which we live.” Dean Kirby has already taken the important step of uniting under one roof responsibility for all aspects of the undergraduate experience. This marks an important opportunity to bring together — both practically and conceptually — two crucially important spheres of our students’ education.

I hope that our curricular review will recognize the importance of extracurricular activities for student life and learning. I hope that we will consider as well how to capture in the academic domain the energy and engagement that we see in the multifarious activities of our students.

In these various extracurricular pursuits, students engage actively with each other, working in teams toward a common goal. They take initiative and exercise leadership in shaping their experience. They are mentored by older students and adults in the skills they are working to acquire.

Many students are similarly engaged and supported in their academic work. Our students publish papers and take out patents based on discoveries they make in our labs, working with teams of graduate students, post-docs, and faculty members. They regularly work together in study groups to attack problem sets in mathematics and economics. They dine at foreign language tables to improve their fluency. And some are fortunate enough to spend three successive years in a progression of workshops and individual tutorials learning to write poetry from a leading poet of our day.

I hope that in any new curricular approaches we may adopt, we will think hard about how to incorporate aspects of our students’ extracurricular experience that make them so meaningful; that we will find more ways to let students work in groups, to set their own direction, and to be guided by mentors in their areas of interest.

Third, in sorting through the various balances that any curriculum must strike — between depth and breadth of knowledge, between content and method, between freedom and prescription, between education in a common heritage and openness to the future and the world — I hope we will look to the plausible intellectual aspirations of our students and ask ourselves what knowledge and capacities they ought to take with them into the world.

The letters from students and faculty raise two seemingly contradictory themes. One is the call, by both faculty and students, for greater flexibility in choosing courses. The other is a yearning that I have heard often from students in my visits to the Houses, for greater guidance with respect to what they should know in certain broad fields of knowledge.

I recently commented to one of our leading art historians that it would be terrific if Fine Arts 13 were still available as an introduction for students who would probably never take another art history course in their lives. Reacting with a mixture of consternation and hilarity, she wondered how I could possibly expect any self-respecting scholar to propel our students — like a cannon ball — from “Caves to Picasso” in one academic year.

In this age of exploding and highly specialized knowledge, and justified skepticism about Olympian claims, it is not easy to figure out how we can legitimately address our students’ desire for familiarity with the landscape of the major fields of knowledge. But I hope we will do our best to wrestle with this issue.

Fourth, in thinking about the capacities with which we should equip our students, we would all, I suspect, agree on certain fundamentals:

  • All of our students should know how to compose a literate and persuasive essay;
  • All of our students should know how to interpret a great humanistic text;
  • All of our students should know how to connect history to the present; and
  • All of our students should know — they should genuinely understand at some basic level — how unraveling the mysteries of the genome is transforming the nature of science, and how empirical methods can sharpen our analysis of complex problems facing the world.

As we focus on what knowledge our students acquire and ways in which they learn to think, I hope we will also consider the range of intellectual skill that our students will need for success in life and work.

We do a very good job of assuring that Harvard graduates can write an effective Expository essay. But it is not clear to me that we do enough to make sure that our students graduate with the ability to speak cogently, to persuade others, and to reason to an important decision with moral and ethical implications. To succeed in the worlds that most will enter, our students will be expected to know how to collaborate with others on substantive problems and to negotiate to reach an outcome.

At a somewhat more esoteric level, when we consider the importance, embodied in the Core, of exposing students to “ways of knowing,” I hope that we will think more rigorously about the level of mastery we ask of our students, and more flexibly about how we let them acquire it. Let me take science as an example.

Traditionally, many of the well-educated have stood in the same relationship to science as to the engine of a car. They appreciate its importance, they understand what it can do for them, and they recognize the need for experts to make or repair it. But they have fundamentally not a clue about what goes on under the hood.

However realistic it might have been to expect non-scientists to understand what was going on in cutting edge science a century ago, this is not a remotely plausible prospect today. Yet because of the prospect science holds for progress in various domains, science and scientific ways of thinking are coming to influence a far wider range of human activity than ever before.

Decisions about how to market detergent, or how to respond to someone with the common cold, or how to manage a national economy, or even how to evaluate the success of a school — all once based on hunch and art — are today made in increasingly analytical and rigorous ways.

It is plainly not enough that our students at some point have “exposure” to science and its methods. They will need to achieve a reasonable working knowledge of, and facility with, its means of measurement, analysis, and calibration.

Finally, we surely owe our students the capacity to engage in an informed and zealous way with the wider world. In my view, the defining challenge of our time is the relationship between developing countries and the developed world. Success in this domain holds out the prospect for human emancipation, rising standards of living, and the spread of liberty. Having nations with incomes that double in a decade is unprecedented in history and has never happened in this country, but it is a realistic possibility. The consequences of such outcomes will rival the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution.

But there are alternative futures suggested by such terms as “ethnic cleansing,” “Iraq,” “AIDS,” and “global warming.” Nothing will shape the world in which our children live more than how the industrialized and developed worlds come together.

If Harvard students are to make a difference, they will need to understand and think about parts of the world remote from themselves. They will need to meet people from other countries here and abroad, study texts from other civilizations, and grapple with cultures and social structures different from their own.

There is no question that Harvard is a distinctively American institution, and it will remain so. But in this century more than ever, it must be an American institution open to the world.

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At one level, revising a curriculum is about endless committees, the structure of requirements and the ways in which bureaucracies will function. One can understand why Derek Bok compared the task of changing an academic curriculum to moving a cemetery. On another level, very few things are more important. The world is shaped by what its leaders think and they develop their beliefs, their attitudes, and their capacities at places like this one. Harvard College has served this world for fifteen generations. We will do our part in the next generation.