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Remarks at the 20th Anniversary of the Humanities Center, Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers

Cambridge, MA

I am a child of my MIT education, which did not imbue me with the kind of humanistic education that I would have liked to have received. I have been playing catch-up for a long time, particularly since I returned to Harvard three years ago. And while I am certainly not in any position to tell you about the future of the humanities or what areas of inquiry are most important within the humanities, I would like to share three reflections.

First, I am acutely aware that the university’s most profound obligation is to maintain the tradition of humanistic learning.

Why do I call it the most profound obligation of the university?

If Harvard did not do economics, there would be other institutions in our society that would think about how economies fluctuated, how welfare programs should be redesigned, and how patterns of international trade worked. If great universities like this one did not engage on questions of how cells worked or how the genome functioned, there would still be a very large NIH budget and people to lay claim to that budget by doing important research. For all sorts of reasons, it is hugely important for the university to do these things.

But think about the lives of our students that are changed and enriched – quite apart from whatever they may do in their careers – by what they learn about art, music, or literature while they are here.

Think about the experiences they have in understanding another culture by studying a different language.

Think about what Widener Library does for the humanities.

If great universities do not accomplish this, I fail to see how the other institutions in society will fill that gap. Furthermore, if we lose the continuity of humanistic education, it is very hard to regain. And so, we have no more important obligation as a university than to make certain that the study of the humanities – the understanding of beauty – is strengthened from generation to generation.

Second, I would like to reflect on an essay that Richard Thomas wrote in connection with the curricular review.

Professor Thomas quoted a hero of mine, General Marshall, who remarked in a 1947 address at Princeton that he did not see how a sensible person could think about Europe after the Second World War without having attended closely to the thoughts and lessons of Thucydides on the Peloponnesian War.

General Marshall captures a very deep truth in his observation. I am not sure I know the right words for expressing it, but perhaps it is this. One needs to distinguish between being smart and being wise. One needs to distinguish between the questions of methods and means and the questions of human nature and the ways in which humans love and hate.

We can have the best techniques in the world for genetic engineering. We can have the greatest understanding of how the cerebellum lights up in response to stimuli. But we will still be missing some very basic kinds of understanding that we will not get from scientific inquiry, nor will we get from social science either.

If you asked me whether someone, in thinking about the great development policy challenges facing the developing world today, should read a great book on development economics or the novels of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, I would make a strong argument for the latter.

This is hugely important to what the university is all about: we teach people. We have the chance to teach people when they are young and malleable. And if the world is to move forward in the best ways, it is important that our students appreciate that there is more to being smart and to having tools.

Third, let me suggest that it would be a grave mistake – with respect to any area of inquiry in education – to try to instrumentalize the humanities.

The real reason why people should study economics is not because it will help them in their business careers. The real reason why people should study physics is not to be able to drive their cars better or operate their cell phones better. Similarly, it would be a profound mistake to think about what is good about the humanities in purely instrumental terms, to make for better policy and richer lives. The humanities should be left as one of the pinnacles of the human experience.

I had a chance a few months ago to read and to try to understand Helen Vendler’s Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. I was struck by her thoughts on the veneration of beauty, and how she noted that so many of our societies are remembered much more for the creations of their greatest beauty than they are for anything else. And it is terribly important that this sentiment should be awakened in people in a way that I wish had been more awakened in me when I was young.

I believe that this conference is celebrating something wonderful, important, and long-lasting. What goes on in the humanities will be remembered by people in 2100 when they ask, “What happened at Harvard?”

I also sense a changing attitude on the question of appreciating beauty rather than creating beauty. There is growing respect for the creation of beauty and more help for those who desire to create beauty.

We are also increasingly recognizing that while remarkable and important work has been accomplished over the years by white, European men, there is also a vast and much less fully explored terrain that represents the accomplishments of the 90 percent of humanity that does not fall in this category.

A conference like the one today clearly reveals the opportunities for bringing together different approaches that merge the perspectives of traditional disciplines. There is a very deep yearning for people to understand themselves, to understand this culture, to understand the other cultures with which they interact.

All of this suggests that we are now part of an enormously fruitful and productive period of scholarship and teaching in the humanities at Harvard and at other universities.

I hope that the people in this room, and all of us at the University, move forward with confidence and joy, because there is an enormous amount that the humanities can do to make a difference for our students, our nation, and our world.

Thank you very much.