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Introductory remarks for the Jefferson Lecture by Helen Vendler

Fong Auditorium, Cambridge, Mass.

If, as Helen Vendler says in the Jefferson Lecture that we are about to hear, that after all, it is by their arts that cultures are principally remembered, then I would suggest to you that equally, it is by fostering the creation, the appreciation, and the interpretation of art that universities make one of their greatest contributions.

And I would suggest that it is a contribution of special importance because it is a contribution that is, in many ways, unique to the university.

If the university does not think about better strategies for competitiveness, others will. If the university does not think about new trends in architecture, others will. If the university does not think about new approaches to the development of pharmaceuticals to cure cancer, others will. If the university does not think about new approaches in mathematics, others will.

But if the university does not foster, nourish, and sustain humanistic study, I don’t know where in our society that will happen. And that is why humanities must always be at the very center of any great university.

The first time I learned much of Helen Vendler as a person – I, of course, knew of the scholarly work that made her the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor, although I confess that after an MIT education, I would not wish to be examined on the content of that work – but the first time I learned of what a remarkable person Helen Vendler is came not long after I was at Harvard.

At my office hours, a young man came to discuss an issue that was of great concern to him regarding a certain aspect of athletic funding for the team of which he was a part. And we discussed whatever his concern was, and I asked him how he liked Harvard in general. And he said he liked it. And I asked him what he liked best. And he lit up for five minutes and described Helen Vendler’s freshman seminar, and then he went on to explain how grateful he was that Helen Vendler, who it seemed to him had an extraordinary number of very important things to do, had gone to very substantial trouble to get him a position over the summer studying poetry in Ireland, and that was something that he thought would never happen, but really was changing his whole set of interests.

And that, it seemed to me, spoke to the kind of passion and inspiration that Helen Vendler has brought to our University for a long time and that, I know, she brings to the remarks she will present today.

So I am delighted, on behalf of the University, to welcome you here as we celebrate Helen Vendler and, in celebrating Helen Vendler, to celebrate an enterprise that is at the very heart of our University.