December 10, 2008
In November 2007, I convened a University-wide task force to think comprehensively about the role of the arts in the research university, in the liberal arts, and at Harvard in particular. Today, Harvard’s Task Force on the Arts, led by Cogan University Professor and Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, issued its exceptionally thoughtful report calling for Harvard to make the arts an “integral part of the cognitive life of the University.” Accompanied by a framework of recommendations designed to bring this vision to life within the cultural, curricular, and physical structures of the University, the report makes a powerful case that deserves our attention and action.
The report acknowledges the rich array of arts that exist at Harvard — in our extensive museum collections, our vibrant theater and music performances, and in the “often spontaneous upsurge of art-making fostered by more than 100 undergraduate student arts organizations.” At the same time, it bemoans the lack of a “visible or compelling presence” of the arts in the University, the absence of art from the “spaces of everyday life,” and our “genial” exile of art-making — both performance and the fashioning of material and textual objects — to the extracurricular sphere.
In prose both elegant and forceful, the report calls for Harvard to end the “curricular banishment” of the arts and recognize that they belong at the core of the University’s educational mission. The arts, practiced well, are “manifestations of carefully acquired skills, conceptual intelligence, and daring.” They bring new ideas, forms, and methods into being. Like laboratory science, art-making demonstrates the power of physical, material problem-solving in generating vital and original ideas. In short, the arts belong — every bit as much as the sciences and the humanities — at the heart of Harvard’s commitment to leadership and “originality of mind.”
More concretely, the report calls for changes in the undergraduate curriculum to make arts practice a more important and accessible dimension of both general education and departmental courses in the arts; the creation of an innovative MFA program at the graduate level; the development of initiatives to increase the presence of the arts in the daily life of the University; and the construction of new spaces and facilities to give the arts a greater presence at Harvard.
When I wrote the charge to the task force over a year ago, I mentioned that it was a time of new beginnings. So, too, a year later we find ourselves in a moment of great change — this time, in the form of radically altered economic conditions that challenge easy assumptions about our ability to contemplate new programs or mount bold initiatives. That said, many of the recommendations of the task force do not require significant financial commitments in the near term. They instead call for something far more important — for us at Harvard to make a fundamental shift in our perception of the role and function of the arts on campus. This shift begins when one reads the powerful “Vision for the Arts at Harvard” that forms the core of the task force report, and it will continue over months and years ahead as we engage in a campus-wide dialogue that will, I hope, ultimately see the arts assume their rightful place in the life of the University.
Especially in difficult times, when ways of thinking and doing that we have taken for granted are challenged on a daily and weekly basis, we must encourage our students to ask fundamental questions and to solve problems in the inventive and collaborative ways exemplified by the making of art. Art produces experiences and objects that are carefully constructed and intricate reflections of the world. Empathy, imagination, and creativity are forms of knowledge that a university must foster in its students. Moreover, the arts have the power to bring us together as a community in the present, but also to provide powerful connections to those who have come before us and to those who will follow us. In times of uncertainty, the arts remind us of our humanity and provide the reassuring proof that we, along with the Grecian urn, have endured and will continue to do so. Now is the time to embrace, not retreat from the arts.
The actions recommended by the task force will not happen overnight and will require, over time, significant investments of both energy and finances on the part of the University. In the near term, I look forward to working with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School of Design as they begin the process of considering the curricular recommendations the task force has proposed. I hope to define, as well, some concrete actions to enhance support of the arts on campus drawing on existing funds designated for such purposes.
The findings and recommendations within the report reflect more than a year of intensive research, analysis, and consultation with the Harvard community, other universities and arts institutions, and experts from across the country. I am personally grateful to Stephen Greenblatt for his enormous investment of time and erudition in leading these efforts, and to the members and staff of the task force for their thoughtfulness and hard work in pointing us forward on this important set of issues. The report affirms the value of the arts in the education and life of our students and reminds us that we at Harvard are both privileged and obligated to provide a comprehensive educational experience.
– Drew Gilpin Faust