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Where Are the Humanities?

By Robert J. Fenster

Last week, under a humid, steamy tent across from Radcliffe Yard, University President Lawrence H. Summers said a few words at the reception for the Fay Prize recipients, students recognized for outstanding research in any field. After rambling on about the weather, he praised the breadth of fields represented by the three winners and said that the subjects researched demonstrated the wide range of interests pursued by the undergraduate community. The only problem with Summers’ remarks was that he was dead wrong: the three prizes given were all related to the sciences; one biology, one engineering and one history of science thesis were recognized.

Was Summers’ praise of the diversity of awards a mere slip of the tongue, a simple oversight? Or was it yet another example of a gaffe made by a president who seems intent on ignoring the humanities?

I am worried about the current Harvard administration, and no, I am not upset with Larry Summers for the usual reasons. I admire him for speaking his mind, I welcome his desire to invigorate the sciences, and I think he is a dynamic leader who effects change. My worry is that Summers is overly concerned with Harvard’s role in society as a research institution, which leads him to the deeper flaw of failing to appreciate the importance of the humanities.

On Summers’ presidential website, he has listed what he calls the “Harvard University Statement of Values.” In terms drawing inspiration from a variety of sources, such as the Declaration of Independence and “Star Trek,” he declares that Harvard “aspires to provide education and scholarship of the highest quality—to advance the frontiers of knowledge and to prepare individuals for life, work, and leadership.” And, in the strictest sense, he is correct. Harvard does provide education, and it does advance knowledge through research. But does Summers’ mission statement accurately reflect the full purpose of the University? Summers’ statement implies that Harvard serves society—it “provides” and “prepares”—existing as a machine that produces knowledge through research and leaders through education.

Summers’ policies reflect his rhetoric. His relentless campaign in support of public service includes $14 million of funding to graduate students in these fields, and his commitment to advancing the sciences at the University has led to increased funding and his suggestion that every student must know the now-infamous “difference between a gene and a chromosome” has led to a curricular review.

These goals are admirable, but they do not represent the entire mission of the University. The Harvard that I will remember is much more than a public servant; it is a community of scholars excited about ideas. We study, we learn and we research, not only because our work will make the world a better place to live, but also because ideas can be beautiful, because they make life worth living and because the act of creating them is a good in itself.

The desire to view the University as a contributor to society resonates with us because it is a tangible good. We can see the effects of new cancer treatments discovered at the medical school; Harvard economists can improve the lives of millions through their research. It is more difficult to perceive the worth of studying literature, history or the classics. And often because the good of these humanistic pursuits is not immediately obvious, they are placed in opposition to the more practical disciplines. There seems to be an unstated assumption held by many that the act of appreciating beauty is solipsistic and opposed to helping others because it diverts time and resources from “worthwhile” pursuits.

But this claim is fallacious and damaging. There are other measures of worth besides usefulness to society, but even if we accept society’s benefit as the primary measure of worth, the humanities have much to offer. Seeing beauty in the world sparks the desire to create; seeing beauty in others moves us toward sympathy and the will to help them. In the sciences, my sphere of expertise, the humanities play a crucial role of inspiration. Nobel Laureate Dudley Hershbach made us write poems in his Chem 10 class because he believes that the desire to learn about the root causes of phenomena in the world arises from our appreciation of the world’s beauty. Aesthetic sensibility even suffuses the judgment of merit of scientific theories; the highest compliment a scientist can bestow is to call a theory “beautiful” or to call a set of experiments “elegant.” Scientists attempt to make interesting “stories” from their research to inspire their audiences. Our barometers of truth are tied up with our appreciation of beauty.

The pressures outside our walls certainly remind us daily of the need for Harvard to produce ideas to help others, but when we pursue this goal single-mindedly, when we no longer stop to take time and appreciate that which is beautiful, we will have lost something great indeed. President Summers may help the sciences achieve tremendous heights during his tenure, but his failure to speak on behalf of the humanities is damaging in effect, if not intent.

Robert J. Fenster ’03, a biochemical sciences concentrator in Eliot House, was an associate editorial chair of The Crimson in 2002.

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