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“Liberty and Learning.” Remarks by Drew Faust at Your Harvard: Washington, D.C.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

Thank you, T.K., for that very kind introduction. It is always such a pleasure to be with an energized group and such a large group of Harvard alumni. And it’s a special privilege to join with you tonight here at the heart of our National Mall after hearing from one of my absolute heroes, John Lewis, and of course the four heroes who were just here on the stage — and to be in this extraordinary museum. Stretching across one of the walls nearby here in the museum are powerful words from James Baldwin that I often quote. He wrote, “History is present in all that we do.” I can imagine no better setting for this gathering than a museum of history. I’ve often remarked that universities are accountable to the past and to the future. This museum bears witness to the past and invites us to consider what has brought us to this critical moment in the nation and at Harvard. And it invites us to imagine a new trajectory for the future.

It so happens that today is a landmark anniversary of an event that changed the nation. And no, I don’t mean Harvard’s victory in the very first Harvard-Yale game, which happens to have been played on November 13, 1875. I’m referring to another victory, 61 years ago, when the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the segregation of public buses. Below us, on the second level of the museum, you can see a yellow dress, the dress Rosa Parks was carrying home from work the day she insisted on her right to an equal seat on a city bus. She was a seamstress whose courage restitched our social fabric. And she also prized education.

She recalled of her childhood in rural Alabama, “Our school term was five months while white students had classes for nine months and rode buses to well-equipped school buildings. While black students,” she said, “walked long, weary miles to uncomfortable shacks with no desks.” She wrote, “It was rare indeed [for a young, black person] to look forward to finishing his education.” And so, before she so famously rocked the bus, Rosa Parks spearheaded an effort to desegregate public libraries, organizing black students to enter white libraries to request volumes that black libraries didn’t have.

The long march toward equal access and opportunity in education, the link between liberty and learning, is a central story in the life of Rosa Parks. It’s also a central story of this museum and of this nation. And it’s a story in which Harvard has played a long and distinguished part.

In this great hall with three floors below us and three above we are surrounded by testaments to a passion for learning: the tattered Bible that Nat Turner carried into a slave rebellion, prompting laws that made it a crime to teach enslaved persons to read; the hymnal Harriet Tubman cherished, though we believe she could neither read nor write; the Celtics jersey of basketball great Bill Russell, whose most prized childhood possession was his library card to the Oakland Public Library. He said he taught himself there to memorize every detail of da Vinci and Michelangelo paintings. And then he discovered he could apply this same technique to his mental replays of action on the basketball court.

A traditional phrase for hope against impossible odds was “to make a way out of no way.” African-Americans have been making a way to education for centuries. As Booker T. Washington once observed, “It was a whole race trying to go to school.” Old and young, male and female, hiding books and pencils in the crannies of slave cabins, working extra hours at night for the one who could read, so he had time to study the Bible and read it to them; masses of children, walking miles to school, sometimes sharing shoes, begging to start early and to leave late. Between 1861 and 1900, African-Americans established more than 90 historically black colleges and universities. The bricks from some of them are downstairs.

And if those bricks weigh against the heavy past of a divided rail car and a segregated lunch counter, some of the museum’s smallest and lightest objects attest most poignantly to the liberating power of learning: a book, a library card, a diploma that no burden could completely suppress. You see them in every exhibit. There’s the pocket-sized Emancipation Proclamation, distributed from Boston to Union soldiers to read to black Southerners to inform them of their liberty. One of these occasions moved Harvard alum Thomas Wentworth Higginson, College class of 1841, to tears. On New Year’s Day 1863 he stood before thousands of people in Beaufort, S.C., gathered to hear the proclamation of their freedom read aloud. As Col. Higginson waved the American flag they burst into song, beginning with three quavering voices and then with the crowd joining in, singing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” to a flag that was theirs for the first time. As Higginson put it, “I never saw anything so electric.” He wrote, “It made all other words cheap … the choked voice of a race at last unloosed.” He handed out hundreds of copies of the booklet to the formerly enslaved men under his command, the first Union regiment of its kind. There was liberty in the letter of the law.

You can find downstairs the “Blue Back Speller,” first published in 1824, an elementary spelling book with a blue cover about 6-by-5 inches, sold by the thousands, like a second Bible, the little book that every black person had to have. Freedman Lorenzo Ezel bought one with the first money he ever earned and he carried it wherever he went. “Plow[ing] a row,” he said, “and then stop[ping] to rest and overlook the lesson.” Frederick Douglass carried one in his pocket as an enslaved boy in Baltimore, burning with desire to read, using it to cadge lessons from white children. “Some men,” he said, “know the value of an education by having it. I know its value by not having it.”

And last, an item in the collection especially meaningful to a history teacher, a pamphlet from Freedom Summer, a program carried out by some 1,500 college student volunteers in Mississippi in 1964. At the same time they were registering thousands of first-time black voters they opened more than 40 “freedom schools” — a Harvard volunteer described one involving 60 people ranging in age from 4 to 70. They came from miles on foot or car or in the backs of pickups. And there they learned about the black past and about a heritage they’d never heard of, a foundation for belonging and not being merely present.

As Langston Hughes famously wrote, “I, too, am America.”

These artifacts embody the qualities of a liberal education, the ones I repeat to students and make a case for with Congressmen alike. Education liberates the mind, even when the body is oppressed. It gives us perspective as a passport to other times, other places, and other points of view as well, as a way to learn about ourselves, to reimagine our lives in ways that alter us forever.

What would have been the feeling? — to be told you have no culture, you have no heritage, your people had created nothing meaningful, and then to be united and uplifted by a different story, a new story of your past that becomes the new narrative of what is possible. History not only tells us that things were once different than we experience now. It tells us that they can and they will be different again. And perhaps, most important, it tells us that we can make it so. Learning instills agency.

That is why this museum is so important. It’s also why Harvard is so important.

President James Madison, who himself owned more than 100 enslaved laborers, wrote a letter in 1822 praising free and open access to education. “What spectacle,” he wrote, “can be more edifying … than that of Liberty and Learning, each leaning on the other for their mutual and surest support.” These are words now inscribed on the Library of Congress. As our panel today attested, we are still wrestling with the legacy of that founding paradox, of slavery and liberty. What would Madison have said of Richard Greener, Harvard College’s first black graduate, class of 1870, who served as principal of an all-black high school just a few blocks north of here? Or what would he have said of Barack Obama, Harvard Law School class of 1991, president for eight years in a White House that enslaved persons helped to build? Both buildings were within a short walk of slave auction pens, active here until the 1850s. On the other hand, what Freedom Summer volunteer could have imagined that we would still be discussing today, in this museum, the persisting gap in the educational attainment in a nation where, after more than 50 years, access to education is still not equal?

The year before he died in his mid-70s, Frederick Douglass gave a speech on the blessings of liberty and education. “Education,” he said, “means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light only by which men can be free.” Douglass said those words in 1894, to dedicate a school for colored youth near the first battleground of the Civil War in Manassas. It was the 56th anniversary of his escape from slavery, the day, he told the crowd, that he “ceased to be a chattel … and… bec[a]me a man.” I remember the day I heard the Brown v. Board decision announced on the radio. I lived on a farm in Clark County, Va., about 60 miles west of here. And I attended an all-white school. I was 7 years old. And I glimpsed then the aspiration toward justice through education that has come to shape my life. For more than two centuries Harvard shut its gates to black students and for more than three centuries to female students. And yet, here we are, and here I am.

Now, the liberty in learning is not just an American story. It’s a human story. And yet, in the long struggle for enlightenment there may be no story more compelling than the one we’ve touched on here tonight — the liberation of enslaved and once-enslaved African-Americans through education.

The history of Harvard itself began in 1636, just 17 years after the first, enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown. From then until now, for almost 400 years, the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of education have defined Harvard’s purpose. And that purpose has led inexorably — even if far too gradually and sometimes haltingly — toward increasing access and inclusion, toward opening the gates of learning. The way has not always been straight. We are only now coming to understand the importance of slavery in Harvard’s early years, and our past contains distressing instances of prejudice and cruelty, not just against African-Americans but against Jews, gays, women, and others.

But beginning with its first scholarships in 1643 Harvard has gradually opened its community to one individual and one group after another, widening its gates through financial aid, through its invention of merit-based testing and its merger with Radcliffe, through advocacy and outreach for first-generation and low-income and undocumented applicants, all in the effort to attract students of talent and promise from every background across the United States and across the world.

Sometimes by having it, to use Douglass’ phrase, we forget the value of education. We can lose sight of how precious it is, the smuggled book, the tattered hymnal, that speller propped against the plow. And now, in a national climate hostile to differences of perspective or experience or identity, where violence and threats replace rational discourse and exchange, we have our own call to action — to champion equal access to education, to foster discourse where facts and truth matter, to interrogate a past that has never been more important to our future. A liberal education is not only liberating, as Madison knew. It is an education vital to a free people. In the words of early 20th-century Civil Rights activist Nanny Helen Boroughs: education is “democracy’s life insurance.” We have never needed it more.

Advancing the critical role of education in promoting service, achieving social justice, enhancing understanding, and widening opportunity is fundamental at Harvard and at the heart of The Harvard Campaign we launched in 2013. Let me give you just a few, brief examples: 

Financial aid has changed our student body, supporting more than 3,600 undergraduates, close to 60 percent of those enrolled. Fifteen percent of students are now the first in their families to go to college, boosted by our First Generation Program that is raising early College awareness, supporting prospective students, and fostering community. Twenty percent of our undergraduates come from families with incomes below $65,000 a year and make no familial contribution to tuition or room and board. And this fall for the first time the entering class is majority minority.

At the Graduate School of Education, as Dean Ryan described, our new Teacher Fellows program creates innovative pathways into teaching for students who are making a difference in high need, urban schools from Brooklyn to Oakland. And also at the GSE the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative, established last year through the largest gift in GSE history, supports our nation’s most vulnerable children through transformational research and leadership training.

Public Service Fellowships support students working to advance social justice, education, and human rights in communities across the country. And the new Mindich Program for Engaged Scholarship links public service to the curriculum with new courses that foster socially engaged scholarship.

HarvardX, since its establishment in 2012, is an online, digital-learning program that has brought the University’s intellectual resources to more than 6 million eager online learners around the world. Individuals of all ages and all walks of life have enrolled. But I’m especially proud that the largest single category of HarvardX learners, one-third of the total, are teachers. What they are learning from our faculty will have an exponential impact as they share it with others.

At Harvard Law School, to give another example, clinical opportunities for students have expanded dramatically, from 20 clinics to 31 clinics over the last decade, enabling students to combine classroom learning with hands-on engagement in areas like human rights, criminal justice, or immigration and refugee law. The immigration clinic is, in fact, playing a critical role in aiding our DACA students, working to protect them so that they can continue to pursue their educational dreams.

Education and freedom are inseparably intertwined, as this museum so powerfully reminds us. We must continue to advance the hope and the reality of what education can achieve. We must continue to insist and to demonstrate that facts and knowledge matter. We must heed the call to action as we continue our work to open the gates and close the gap.

Last spring a Harvard College student was named the nation’s first Youth Poet Laureate. Her name is Amanda Gorman. She is the daughter of a single mother who teaches English in inner-city Los Angeles. She recently described education, in her words, as a “life-or-death resource.” I would like to give the last words to Amanda, taken from a poem she read, wearing a yellow dress at the Library of Congress this fall.

… my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom
in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.
She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock,
a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer
or knock down a dream.

There’s …

a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.

There’s a place where this poem dwells —
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.

Thank you very much.