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University President Lawrence H. Summers told a packed crowd of international students in Emerson Hall’s largest classroom yesterday morning that universities have increased importance in a globalizing world where economics depends increasingly on the interchange of ideas.
Summers’ speech, followed by a question-and-answer session, was his first to students of the Summer School, now in its second week. He gave a similar talk last year at the request of Dean of the Summer School Peter Buck.
The address, which explored both changes in the global economy and the responsibility of education in a world of technological innovation and international communication, forms the centerpiece of this week’s Institute for English Language (IEL), an intensive program offering students an opportunity to learn and practice English at Harvard.
Christopher Queen, Summer School dean of students, said that Summers’ status as an educational leader and international economist would make his thoughts particularly intriguing to young scholars from around the world. More than 1,000 foreign students are enrolled in Harvard’s programs this summer.
Citing different traits of the changing globe, Summers said that institutions like Harvard could lead a new era based on communication across geographic barriers.
“In the next century, the important organizations are going to be more like Harvard,” he said. “The product is going to be ideas and the process is going to be people working together.”
Leaning against one corner of the podium, his collar unbuttoned, Summers recounted his amazement upon receiving a cell phone call on a small and impoverished island off the Côte d’Ivoire. The experience was reflective of a changing world, he said.
Discussing “the tremendous difference that technology and scientific developments are making in the way people live,” Summers praised the innovations that allow communication that earlier would have been impossible.
“We have come an enormous distance in connectedness,” he said.
Technology is beginning to influence even age-old traditions of scholarship, he said.
“If you had your choice between two hours on the internet and two hours in Widener Library, you would choose two hours on the internet,” Summers said.
But he predicted that the next century’s dramatic innovations in methods of communication would be eclipsed by the sciences in making the most impressive changes to international life.
“My guess is that when the history of this century is written, what’s happened in the life sciences will be greater than what’s happened in information technology,” he said. Promises of accurate and widely available genetic information will change the way people live, he said.
“We are beginning to see this in some Asian cities, where 60 percent of the babies born are boys because of the choices people have made. We are just at the beginning.”
Stepping into his economist’s shoes, Summers discussed what he thought would be a shift from the rigid production hierarchies of the past century to an economic culture that values and disseminates ideas rather than material products. That, Summers said, will make the role universities play more crucial.
“Education is going to be more important than it’s ever been before,” he said. Summers said a successful education would involve more than just teaching a selection of facts and theories.
“What I hope you will learn in your college years is this: an active and enlightened curiosity and a belief that by thinking systematically, the world can better be understood,” Summers told the assembled students, many of whom had not yet begun their undergraduate years. “And when it is better understood, it can be made better.”
Education, he emphasized, requires responsibility. He told the student that they should ultimately be concerned not with “how smart” they were, but instead “how wise.”
Strong ethical judgement—which cannot be garnered only from books—will be essential for the rising generation to ensure that technological developments are used for beneficial, rather than harmful, principles, he told the young scholars.
During a question-and-answer session following Summers’ discussion, students asked questions requesting his thoughts on topics from grade inflation to Harvard’s international openness.
Most students said they were pleased at the chance to hear from the internationally recognized leader.
“It was very easy to follow—even for an international student,” joked Samito Kawano, who is enrolled in IEL’s English for the MBA program.
Queen said he thought Summers’ address—with its integration of educational, economic and international themes—reflected the summer program’s goals.
“It fits very well with our own mission to attract highly qualified international students to Harvard,” he said.
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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