Probably the most important book that was written at Harvard in the last half century, and probably the most important work of political philosophy in the 20th century, was John Rawls’ Theory of Justice, which changed the way people thought about what would constitute a fair society and profoundly influenced thinking about policy and ethics around the world. For the 12 years before that book was published, Professor Rawls’ research activities were observationally equivalent to loafing. He published nothing for 12 years. He was just working on that book, which then became one of the most important books of the second half of the 20th century. And it is only an institution like a great university that permits that. And that is part of our great strength.
I’ll tell you another thing that is part of the great strength of the university. I taught, this last semester, a freshman seminar on globalization. We had a range of perspectives that the different students had in the seminar. And I would assign readings to the students and ask three students at the beginning of each class to give a response to the readings. And for one of the classes I assigned a lecture that I had given describing international financial crises and the different ways to respond to international financial crises.
And this freshman, 17 years old – albeit 17 years old at Harvard – is going along, and he says, “Then we come to President Summers’ essay. I really don’t think President Summers came close to proving his point. His data really did not come close to supporting his conclusions.” And the guy went on for five minutes in this vein. And if you think about it, it’s actually a remarkable, positive thing.
I actually stopped the class for a second and I said, “You know something? I’m going to explain in a minute or two why I actually think you’re wrong and my data did prove my point. But we’ve all just witnessed something that happens in almost no human institutions. Here you are, you’re been here for six weeks. I have the title president. Used to be the secretary of the Treasury of the United States. And you’re basically explaining to everybody why my views are nonsense. And that’s terrific.”
That is why we’re an institution that makes great progress, because we are an institution where authority resides with ideas rather than ideas residing with authority. And that feature of universities is what, in the United States at least, gives them their very, very great strength.
There are people at Harvard who believe things that I think are nuts. There are people at Harvard who believe things that I think are not just nuts, but deeply offensive to my conception of what would constitute a just and well-functioning society. There are people who believe things at Harvard that the people who fund the university would regard as deeply offensive. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It is my job to make sure that those views are fully represented in the university, and that they are protected from any kind of retaliation.
That’s why we have people with all manner and mean of views. Because you know something? What you find again and again and again in intellectual life is that the nuttiness of one generation is the orthodoxy of the next generation. Whether it is those crazy people who believed in mathematical theories about evolution who just happened to turn out to be right; whether it were these crazy physicists who believed that time sometimes went fast and time sometimes went slow, depending on how fast you were going; whether it is these scholars who had this idea that was absolutely heretical in its time that in looking and thinking about a work of literature you should think about what it had to say about women, and how the female perspective would change the way you viewed that work of literature; whether it was the people who fought – and it was a heretical idea in 1965 – a heretical idea that the way that a country could grow fast was to open itself up to the rest of the world, concentrate on exports, and have a heavily market-oriented system. In the 1960s, that was a nutty idea because most people thought they knew the answer. It was that government should seize the commanding heights of the economy and promote industrialization by protecting against foreign competition who would interfere with industrialization.
And the great thing about a great university is that it’s a place where these ideas can flourish, and where young people can be taught to question. That’s important intellectually. It’s important, I would suggest, in two other ways. It’s important ethically and morally. I’ve had the chance to think about a range of the minor and the major moral calamities of our time. Enron and all the things that that conjures up in the grand scheme of things represents a minor moral calamity of our time. Lots of people lost lots of money. People were defrauded. Money was stolen. People lost their pension. It was terrible. And then there are the really major moral calamities of our time. Rwanda. Situations of that kind.
If you think about them and you think about them hard, it’s not really that those things happened because people didn’t know the difference between right and wrong. People did know the difference between right and wrong. They know that it’s wrong to destroy a material document that’s been subpoenaed. They know that it’s wrong to do what was done in Rwanda. The difference, and the reason those catastrophes happened, is because people who know it’s wrong don’t speak up, don’t stand up, don’t resist, and don’t stop it.
And that is why the most important lesson for ethics and morality that we can teach in the university is not some complex Kantian theory of ethics or morals. It is the idea that if you believe the emperor has no clothes, if you think the emperor might have no clothes, you should always, always ask the question. That if you believe what’s happening is wrong, you should always put the question.
And those are the values of the modern university. And they are something that is very important. That’s why I have an absolute rule that I feel free to ask lots of people lots of questions at Harvard, but I don’t go speak to any group at Harvard without being willing to respond to anybody’s question or comment, because that is something that is so important if institutions are to be run in clean and moral ways.
There’s another value that is central to the modern university, and it’s something I will talk a little more about in my speech tonight. And that is the promotion of trust and understanding. We who serve on faculties actually don’t much like this thought, but it is quite clearly the case if you listen to the evidence of what our students say and what our students think, both while they’re at Harvard and afterwards, that they learn more from each other than they learn from us. And that the important formative experiences are experiences in which students work and interact with each other.
For that to work, for the benefit of those experiences to be maximized, they have to come into contact with people who are not just like themselves. That’s why having a diverse class of students, diverse in where they come from, diverse in what religion they are in, diverse in what race they belong to, diverse in whether they are rich or poor, is something that is so crucial and has been so crucial to the university. And that’s why I’m convinced that in the next generation it is going to be so important for the university to become a truly global university, with students who come from all over the world, and with students who have a chance to go all over the world, to understand each other and to understand their world better.
In my adult lifetime, I cannot remember a time when there was so much misunderstanding by the United States of the world, and of the world by the United States. It’s there in public opinion polls in Europe that ask what country is most dangerous in the world. The United States comes ahead of North Korea or Iraq or Iran or Pakistan. That has got to trouble you as an American. And it’s not a lot better in other parts of the world.
That’s got to do with many things. It’s got to do with particular policy decisions. It’s got to do with the tremendous strength the United States has achieved, rightly or wrongly, in the world. It’s got to do with the conduct of diplomacy both by the United States and by others. But it seems to me to speak to something that is very dangerous. And it seems to me to speak to something where clear thinking, a focus on ideas in a neutral setting, and bringing people together from very different backgrounds can be very important.
And that’s why I believe that the work of a university like Harvard and the support that all of you give to it in so many ways has never actually been more important, because there has not been a moment when the world was more in need of clear, nuanced and sophisticated thinking, more in need of young people with a commitment to make the world a better place, and more in need of neutral and safe ground where people who are very different can come together, can debate, can argue, and can come to a closer approach to truth. And that’s why the strengthening of a great institution like Harvard seems so profoundly important to me right now.
Thank you very much.