Skip to main content

Teaching and Transformation: How the University is Accountable to Parents and Students

Cambridge, Mass.

Speech to Freshmen and Parents

Hello, Class of 2011. Welcome parents and friends, or I should say to most of you, welcome back. Seven weeks ago many of you sat in this audience to begin a journey – for freshmen, a journey through four years of college with the most diverse group of classmates we have ever admitted; for parents, a journey that, after roughly eighteen years of love and exhaustion that delivered your sons and daughters to the gates of Harvard Yard, is now passing into a new phase of its own. On that day in September, I challenged the freshmen to explore the rich troves of the University, to make their way into the mind-bending vitality of its museums and professors and research laboratories, and begin a life of risk and reward at Harvard. I know you have begun to do that. One of you, from Brownsville, Texas, now living in Hollis South, sent me an e-mail to tell me how it’s going so far. You put in six exclamation marks and used the word “ecstatic,” which I took as a good sign. Today you parents have been out exploring some of those treasures, too – the Lewis and Clark artifacts at the Peabody, the collections at the Fogg, classes in biological diversity, Constitutional history, and elementary Persian. But as I challenged your children to use this University, to be accountable to us when I ask at graduation for their boldest explorations, I pledge to you today that for the next four years of your daughter’s or son’s life here, we are accountable to them, and to you.

In my inaugural address two weeks ago, I ventured a definition of what accountability means at a university – that it means being accountable to the past and to the future, and not simply or even primarily to the present. Too often accountability has come to mean a short-sighted, “quarterly results” kind of business model for education – with a checklist of boxes that tick off test scores, graduation rates, the marketplace “value added” of tuition and fees, all important and useful in their way. But if we held ourselves to this minimal standard for learning, you would not be sitting here, brimming with high expectations. A university has a longer view. It is not about a ticker tape of the day’s gains and losses. As I have said, it is about learning that molds a lifetime; learning that transmits the heritage of millennia; learning that shapes the future. It is about endeavors we pursue in part for their own sake, because over the centuries they have defined what makes us human.

Such accountability is an old tradition at Harvard. In earlier centuries, the College was accountable not only for students’ well-being and education, but for their very souls. Our librarians once marked each volume containing “illicit” material with the letters “IO,” standing for “inferno” because it placed students’ souls at risk – the original “i-book,” if you will, the captivating forerunner of the iPod. Today I want to focus on our accountability for two things that, if not directly concerned with students’ souls, are nonetheless transformative: first, we are accountable to teach students well; second, we are accountable to deliver at graduation a human being significantly different from the one you parents left on the steps of a dormitory here a few weeks ago and will say goodbye to again this weekend.

First, teaching. Teaching is at the heart of what we do at a research university. The students of Harvard College are not only part of a much larger place, as I urged upon you in September, they are at its vital center. Unlike a century ago when Josiah Royce could tout “the divine skill of the born teacher’s instincts” and leave it at that, the faculty has recently spent a lot of time and effort to assure that outstanding teaching is a fundamental part of the undergraduate experience. In the past four years they have designed a new curriculum, called for innovative and more highly rewarded teaching, and designed a classroom action plan that encourages undergraduate women and minorities to enter the sciences.

The extraordinary opportunities undergraduates find here, whether in the Mayan ruins of Copán or at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, come about not only because students wade right in, but because of cutting-edge scholars who care deeply about teaching — professors who e-mail undergraduates, invite them into labs and field stations, and collaborate with them about online teaching tools. Undergraduates are not only invited to join this great enterprise, their presence on the journey shapes the exploration itself.

In a remarkable seminar last year on Leonard Bernstein, led by Professors Carol Oja and Kay Shelemay, students uncovered the composer’s little-known early life in Boston. They unearthed early manuscripts. They filmed interviews with people who knew him. The semester culminated in three days of exhibits, symposia, and sold-out concerts at Paine Hall and Sanders Theatre. The students left a permanent archive of new sources for future scholars.

Out in the Yard you may have peered over the orange caution fences at a few big holes in the ground. This is the site of Anthropology 1130 – Professor Bill Fash’s course excavating the oldest property occupied by Harvard College, where the old “Indian College” once stood, dedicated in 1655 to “the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness.” Last week, three undergraduates sifted out of those holes two pieces of 350-year-old printing press type, most likely part of the press that produced the first Bible printed in North America, written in Wampanoag. “One minute you’re just digging so carefully, centimeter by centimeter,” said one student; “The next minute you’re holding real history in your hand.”

Faculty innovation can also center on simple classroom concepts. Senior Physics Professor Eric Mazur found that when he punctuates his lecture classes with small groups of students solving problems, they learn more, and the method is now widely adopted in other courses and universities. Geology Professor John Shaw simulates earthquakes in class with a 3-D visual innovation lab, with real-time data for students to analyze, which may be one reason earth and planetary sciences is a growing concentration at the college.

Most remarkably, the Internet is changing the logistics of learning, enhancing classroom teaching in unexpected and marvelous ways – not replacing the essential exchange between teacher and student, but giving it new forms and rich variety. Students themselves, who grew up online, are pulling us forward. One of our best ideas in years is a technology fellows program that employs students to help professors teach with the Web. I hope some of you have already found your way there.

Just how different is the College classroom from the place some of us knew twenty-five or even five years ago? Different beyond imagining. Ninety percent of Harvard courses, 5,000 a year, have Web sites. Discussion boards and blogs extend in-class discussion. Online maps and archives are a click away. Consider Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt’s course “Travel and Transformation on the High Seas: An Imaginary Journey in the Early 17th Century.” The syllabus is organized around the fictional narrative of three ships that set sail from London and try to reach Africa and the New World. Students log on to Google Earth, zoom in to trace each journey across the globe, click onto the maps and visual arts of seventeenth-century cities, click again onto primary texts that might be two different translations of the Magna Carta, and watch an online performance of “Othello” by a South African theater company. The course is not only multimedia, it is multidisciplinary. Professor Greenblatt employs guest lecturers and experts from many disciplines, including a meteorologist, an anthropologist, and a professor of Turkish studies, giving students a heretofore inconceivably vivid and thorough picture of the Atlantic world and beyond in 1636 – ending, no less, on virtual location at the founding of Harvard College.

The courses I have described can be transforming, a voyage on which professors devote themselves to unhinging the hatches students thought they had already battened down. This is my second point. Beyond being accountable for good teaching, the University is accountable to deliver from these undergraduate experiences a different person from the one who came to us. This cannot wait. Where else can it happen? Graduate school is a funnel for narrowing down amateurs into experts. Jobs demand consistency. College, by contrast, cultivates a culture of unruliness, a zone of deconstruction and openness and new creation. As W.B. Yeats put it, “education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.”

“[C]ollege is a time where one should dare to make mistakes,” wrote senior Matthew Blumenthal for a New York Times essay contest this summer. He called his essay, “Why College Matters.” “[C]ollege should…pus[h] the limits of students’ comfort zones in new and meaningful ways,” he said. “You probably know someone whose Facebook ‘favorite quote’ box contains … Mark Twain’s directive to ‘sail away from safe harbor.’” Exactly. You parents have brought your sons and daughters here, accountable to their pasts, to the forces that have shaped them so far. We are accountable to that past. We must teach them as we find them. But we are also accountable to their futures, and to the larger future that they will help create. The graduating sons and daughters who leave here four years from now may have sailed far, far away from any land or harbor you ever imagined. They sometimes go where we have not imagined. In their own version of travel and transformation on the high seas, the poets or engineers or medical students you thought you were raising may turn out to have a passion for astrophysics or journalism or even professional wrestling, as one student in the Class of 2000 discovered. We are here to keep students on that journey — to help them make choices that may not make sense to you, or even to us, to encourage them to take risks, to unmoor themselves from the safe harbor.

This happens as much, if not more, outside the classroom than in. “How … are college students discovering who they are and what they believe?” asks Blumenthal. “Simply by living together and being friends.” My daughter Jessica, who sat in this audience seven years ago, told me that Harvard changes your aspirations. What does that mean? It means, in part, what happened to Katharine Dain, whose ethereal soprano voice soared over the church service at my inauguration. She came to Harvard hoping to be a high school chorus teacher. She left it – after four fired-up years of conducting, composing, singing, and co-founding the Cambridge Early Music Project — knowing she could pursue a career as a professional singer in London and New York with the intensity and ambition her talents warranted. In an NPR interview, Yo-Yo Ma has described what it was like to come to Harvard as a sheltered, highly accomplished young person and discover, to his astonishment and delight, that there were others, lots of others, like him, who were just as passionate about biology or literature as he was about music.

It means that, like senior Miriam Henman, you might study in Israel at a cutting-edge center for integrating archaeology and natural science, combining chemistry and anthropology in new ways as you excavate objects from an ancient crossroads; or spend a summer in Mexico’s health ministry like junior Francisco Perese; or discover, like Ifunanya Ejebe, a senior last year who was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia at age three, that you can start a program to help teenagers with the disease in Ghana. Once you are here, you realize that you belong. You are motivated by others who are similarly, passionately engaged.

In September, I said to you freshmen that this could be a daunting place, that you could use a guide to the University. I will now say to your parents that what I hope your sons and daughters search for in their four years at Harvard is a guide to life. We are accountable, ultimately, to ourselves. How shall we best live? What should we care about, and why? These are the questions we are here to help the Class of 2011 explore.

You are the first freshmen and parents I have welcomed as president of the University. We begin our journeys together. Journeys are never easy. In Professor Greenblatt’s course, various disasters befall his three ships. Random encounters with new peoples and strange lands utterly transform the lives of the crews. Almost everything is unexpected. We hope we are ready. On Commonwealth Avenue in Boston there is a statue of Samuel Eliot Morrison, the legendary Harvard professor. It shows him gazing toward the sea, bronzed in foul-weather sailing gear, ready for any voyage. But Morrison also knew that in any journey of risk and reward, teaching and transformation, the joy is in the journey, bound to hold in store what he called “long stretches of pure delight such as only a seaman may know, and moments of high, proud exultation that only a discoverer can experience.” Thank you.

– Drew Gilpin Faust