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Harvard in America, a Year Later

By Harry R. Lewis

A year after Sept. 11, where is Harvard?

I can’t do a complete stocktaking: Harvard is so diverse and complicated that it all can’t be in one place. There was an initial “time out” from all forms of personal and political conflict as we absorbed the enormity of what had happened, tended to those affected by the enormous death toll and made ourselves busy in order to feel safer. No recent event has so powerfully reminded us of the shortness and uncertainty of human life and the preciousness of our connections to our family and friends.

As the United States went to war, the fighting in the Middle East played out here in a series of protests and counter-protests. Personal nastiness re-emerged, as though justified by political passion. Serious confrontations were avoided during demonstrations. But all parties tested the limits of regulations designed to protect the rights of the nonpartisan majority to study and live in peace, while protecting the rights of groups advocating a point of view to express that view visibly and audibly to those who chose to listen. There was, of course, nothing new in all that, except the issues being contended.

While the protests, panels and speeches were peaceful, the deans did learn some new vocabulary during the year, such as the notion of an “amplified silent vigil.” I was least proud of our civility during the controversy over the undergraduate Commencement speaker, during which I heard both American Jews and American Muslims referred to as “those people,” not exactly in the tradition of intercultural understanding that Harvard preaches, or of E Pluribus Unum for that matter. But fortunately there were weeks for discussions to take place; reason and tolerance were restored, and Commencement came off well, for which I congratulate all parties.

The war in Afghanistan interacted most interestingly with discussions of other campus issues, Study Abroad and the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in particular. Both were debated before Sept. 11, and neither has moved to a place where it would not have been without Sept. 11. Yet the entire context of the discussions is different from what it would have been. Harvard has liberalized its study abroad rules and has taken other measures to encourage undergraduates to spend time abroad; but those moves are the result of a faculty report that had plenty of momentum before Sept. 11. ROTC has not changed—it remains larger here than at most Ivy colleges, in spite of its lack of official institutional recognition or financial support due to the Faculty’s continued commitment to the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Yet no discussion of military training of Harvard students can take place without a recognition that the country is at war.

Is Harvard an American or a global university? Of course the easy answer is “both,” but a less facile answer may be forced by an event that occurred near the anniversary of Sept. 11: the announcement by Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby that the undergraduate curriculum will be reviewed in the coming years. Of course this too was not a Sept. 11 event; it had been anticipated for more than a year. Yet a review taking place post-Sept. 11 will inevitably have a different character because America’s place in the world is so much under discussion today.

More than 50 years ago, in the aftermath of World War II, the Harvard Faculty produced a masterpiece: General Education in a Free Society, the “Red Book” for short. The basic premise was that civilization had almost been extinguished, and it was a responsibility of American higher education to ensure that the students it was educating would not let the same thing happen again. The phrase “a free society” is brilliantly complex. It plainly refers to America, and the ideals of human freedom that are among America’s founding principles and derive from a particular transatlantic intellectual history. It suggests that America need not be the only free society, but it is the one within which our curriculum is designed. And by locating Harvard’s curriculum within America, it suggests something about Harvard’s place in the world.

The next great curricular review in the late 1970s yielded a more global result; western civilization does not have the same privileged place in the Core that it had in the Red Book, and an explicit Foreign Cultures requirement demands that our students be educated more broadly. Yet the very term “Foreign Cultures” underscores the point of view from which the curriculum looks out to the world.

The curricular review will have to take into account much that has changed in human knowledge since the Core curriculum was adopted, including extraordinary developments in science and technology. But just since Sept. 11, there has been an unprecedented recollection of this country’s founding principles of freedom and equality. In the next review, how will the Harvard Faculty balance the reality that the U.S. is one nation among many in an ever smaller and more interconnected world, with a recognition that the particular “free society” in which Harvard exists is founded on ideals which Americans continue to be proud to defend and preserve?

Harry R. Lewis ’68 is Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Dean of Harvard College.

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