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“Illuminating One’s Bright Virtue”: Higher Education in a Changing World

Peking University

Thank you, President Xu, distinguished faculty, students, and friends. It is an honor to receive such a generous welcome on my first visit to Peking University. China has nourished the world’s most ancient traditions of learning, and I am privileged to be invited here in the year you celebrate this great university’s 110th anniversary. For 80 of those years, from the time of the founding of the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1928, Harvard has cherished its connections with Beida, and we now see these ties growing even closer — as undergraduate students meet and discuss subjects from Confucius, to macroeconomics, to karaoke, as graduate students and faculty launch programs and projects in business, law, government, science, education, and the humanities. Today we celebrate those historic connections and reaffirm our shared commitment to the pursuit of learning and truth.

We do so in a time of great change. At Harvard and at Peking University alike, we have seen dramatic transformations in higher education even within our own lifetimes. In China, the pace and scale of change are breathtaking. The number of students attending Chinese universities has increased sixfold in the past decade. China will produce more graduates this year than any other nation in the world.

In the United States we have seen a similar expansion, though over a longer period of time. Since World War II the percentage of Americans over 25 years of age with college degrees has risen from approximately 5 percent to 27 percent. In the United States currently, almost 60 percent of college-aged youth are involved in some form of higher education. The proportion of this age group enrolled in colleges and universities is about 12 times what it was in the early 20th century.

An important part of this expansion has been the growing access to higher education for minorities, women, immigrants, and those without substantial financial means. I was one of those who benefited from these changes. Neither my mother nor my grandmothers went to college. I attended a women’s college, at a time when many leading American colleges were open only to men. Had I come to Harvard, I would not have been allowed inside its library for undergraduates, which in those days excluded women as a “distraction” from the serious scholarly pursuits of the young men. Even a generation ago, it would have been impossible to imagine that I would someday become president of Harvard or that I would have the privilege of standing on this platform before you. There are many of us at Harvard, students and faculty alike, just as there are many of you in this room, whose opportunities would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Harvard College now has about 130 African American students in each graduating class — 7 to 8 percent of the total, very different from the seven or eight individuals typical of the years before the dramatic changes introduced by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Nearly 20 percent of this year’s freshman class are Americans of Asian descent — also a significant change from even a generation ago. We now enroll far more students from low-income families, as we have worked steadily to make Harvard, including our graduate schools, more affordable through generous financial aid. For a quarter of our entering undergraduate students this year, their families pay nothing at all.

What does such sweeping change mean for places like Harvard and Beida? Part of the expansion in higher education in both our countries arises from the growing recognition that knowledge is the key driver of economic growth and of prosperity for all. But more that that, we recognize that knowledge and learning are as essential to human beings as food – especially as we confront the rapid pace of social, political, and technological change – and as we struggle to understand what it means to be human amid such disorienting shifts in our societies and our lives. Both Beida and Harvard have grown from long traditions of dedication to knowledge. We share with you the challenge of learning to use those traditions in new times.

In the past few weeks, preparing for my trip here, I have spoken with a great many people – Chinese students at Harvard, Harvard students who have studied in China, faculty members who have made China the focus of their intellectual lives. And I have learned a bit about how you in China have faced this challenge of the old and the new, beginning with Confucius, who observed in his Analects, that “One who reanimates the old so as to understand the new may become a teacher.” I would like to speak with you today about some of the ways my university has done this – how we pursue truth, become teachers, reanimate the old within the new – and about what such efforts might mean for universities as standard bearers in a time of profound change.

Harvard has a long association with the word “truth.” It first appeared as our motto just a few years after Harvard’s founding. The word we use for it is not even in our own language, but in Latin – a language that represents even longer traditions and histories. The word is “veritas” – “zhenli” perhaps in Chinese. Our forebears inscribed “Veritas” on the original design for the Harvard shield in 1643, with the letters written on three open books. In that era, “veritas” invoked divine truth, which in Puritan New England of the 17th century meant the revealed wisdom of a Christian God. The bottom book on the shield was face down, to symbolize the limits of human knowledge. But through the centuries, the image on the shield changed. Christian words appeared then disappeared. The bottom book turned upward. But always there is the word “veritas.” Truth remains, but we see that old truth changes, turns over into the new. Today we seek a different sort of “veritas” than our forebears did – one based in reason rather than in faith. But as in the ancient Chinese notion of “dao,” we understand truth to be more than mere knowledge. It is not a possession, but an aspiration – a way to understanding. It is something never acquired but always to be pursued. Any answer simply shapes the next question. We must seek it in a spirit of challenge and restlessness and doubt – whether we are exploring the science of the brain or the history of a nation, the ethical dimensions of a law, the design of a health care system or of a sustainable city, the origins of the universe or the very nature of the human condition as expressed in literature or philosophy or art.

I have learned that one of the basic texts of Chinese civilization describes education this way: “The way of Great Learning lies in illuminating one’s bright virtue.” This is at the heart of a great university. It is even captured in the Chinese word for “university.”

But how do we find this illumination? How do we pursue truth from day to day? One of the fundamental commitments of the American research university as it has evolved over the decades is that the discovery of truth and the imparting of truth must be connected. The process of scholarly research and the teaching of students have been fundamentally intertwined. Students at Harvard are instructed by faculty working at the frontiers of their fields, and we seek to engage students themselves directly in the research process. We have begun to restructure our introductory science classes so that students working in laboratories will not just repeat experiments with known outcomes but will learn techniques and principles by exploring unsolved problems together with their professors. In every field from sciences to social sciences and humanities we encourage students to undertake original research, and nearly half of our undergraduates write theses during their final year of college pursuing original questions, seeking new truths within their chosen areas of study.

If research is the pursuit of truth, teaching is the instrument of its propagation. Our ideas about teaching have continuously evolved throughout Harvard’s history. In its early days, teaching centered on rote learning through recitation. But as we have come to see truth as pursuit rather than possession, our teaching has come to focus more on questioning, interchange, challenge – on equipping our students with the skills and attitudes they need for a lifetime of learning – and we have structured more of our classes as debates and discussions.

Our Law and Business schools have proud traditions of classrooms centered on fast moving interchange between students and professors. In our undergraduate college we have recently revised the curriculum to create more such opportunities, especially through smaller classes that encourage close faculty-student interaction. For these students, we are introducing a new curriculum designed to help them become thoughtful citizens of the 21st century. In this program of study we reaffirm our commitment to the liberal arts, to the belief that undergraduate education should not consist of training for a profession or immersion in one specialized area of inquiry. Instead we ask our students to undertake a broad range of study, including fields very distant from those in which they may eventually become expert and distant from careers they may later pursue. We ask them to stretch beyond the familiar and the comfortable.

In the words of the report on our curricular reform, we aim to “unsettle [students’] presumptions …. to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient” our students and then “help them to find ways to reorient themselves.” Or, perhaps one could say, to “illuminate their bright virtue.” Truth emerges from debate, from disagreement, from questions and doubt. “We provoke students to think and argue,” one professor says, “not only with us and each other but with themselves.” The restless mind, the challenging mind is the expanding and creative mind, the mind prepared for the changes that will confront us all in the years to come.

Just as we are seeking truth in new ways, so we are finding it in new places. The disciplinary fields into which knowledge has been traditionally structured are shifting and merging. We find ourselves increasingly crossing intellectual boundaries. The sciences are transforming one another. Life and physical sciences combine as we explore emerging fields like bioengineering or computational biology. And science reaches out beyond its own domain to the social sciences and humanities to find its proper place in the world. How can we best address global warming? How do we understand the meaning of suffering? When the Harvard Stem Cell Institute formed, its founders knew that its members would have to include, in their words, “not only … scientists and research physicians … but also members of Harvard’s faculties of law, government, divinity, business, and the humanities.” In a recent course entitled, “Ethics, Biotechnology and the Future of Human Nature,” the head of Harvard’s stem cell initiative described discoveries in biology while a government and ethics professor provoked the class with questions. Should a deaf couple be allowed to deliberately conceive a deaf child? Is it wrong to create a human-animal hybrid? When does human life begin?

It is not just the sciences that are embarked on new paths in search of truth. The humanities and social sciences engage across disciplines as well. The impact of the history of imperialism on literature has yielded an area of rich inquiry known as “post colonial studies.” The intersections of law and economics produce new approaches to understanding the nature of both legal systems and government policies. The literary imagination of Shakespeare in “The Merchant of Venice” helps us grasp the impact of capital punishment in a Law School course on moral and legal reasoning.

The search for truth in the 21st century demands that we cross not just disciplinary borders, but national ones, as my presence here attests. As our global connections increase, we find that truths must be conceived internationally. Our sociologists’ understanding of the family, our architects’ notions of design, must be global in reach; our Business School writes the case studies that provide the core of its curriculum about firms and organizations in China and India and other countries as well as the United States; our law students are now required to study international law during their very first year at Harvard.

Researchers in the School of Public Health investigate Chinese women’s breast cancer risk, making comparisons with disease incidence in Caucasians. Epidemiology comes to different conclusions in different settings; its truths must be explored globally. Our Divinity School, founded nearly 400 years ago to train Christian ministers, now studies the religions of the world — from Buddhism to Islam to Hinduism to its own Congregationalist Christian roots. Until very recently — really the past decade – we did not encourage our undergraduate students to study abroad. Now we urge them to spend time outside the United States during the course of their years at Harvard. There has been a more than 300 percent increase in the number of undergraduates studying abroad in just the past six years. This year 150 Harvard undergraduates are studying, researching or interning in China alone. Medical students are working at five different sites in China. And we welcome far more international students to Harvard as well, totaling nearly 20 percent of students across the schools and including 1,400 Asian students currently enrolled at the University.

A hundred years ago, in Beida’s early years, Harvard faculty and students would have been very different people than they are today, and they would have taught, studied, and pursued learning in very different ways. But they would even then have understood themselves to be seeking the truths of knowledge, the illumination of their bright virtue. Our presence here today is one result of that pursuit, of the questions they asked, of the challenges they mounted to the assumptions of an earlier era, of the changes their discoveries brought to the world.

As products and as beneficiaries of these traditions, we hold special obligations. But we owe these debts not merely to the past but to the future. It is our responsibility that the principles of openness, the habits of curiosity, the dedication to a community of learning be sustained and nourished for the next century to come. And it is ours to ensure that the new meanings of the word truth – veritas – that I have described today both inspire us and define our progress.

– Drew Gilpin Faust

Chinese translation of speech »