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In Aspen, Faust Continues Push for Humanities

By Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writer

University President Drew G. Faust once again took to the public pulpit on June 30 to defend the vitality of the humanities and the liberal arts more broadly, urging an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival to hold onto the arts in an increasingly science-oriented age.

In an hour-long conversation with Leon S. Wieseltier, an editor at The Atlantic and former Law School visiting professor, Faust—a historian by trade—lamented the societal shift towards vocational training and the corresponding tendency to use salary as the sole metric of success.

“First of all, many things that we value intensely never are going to be the most remunerative things,” Faust said. “And secondly, we educate students for a lifetime, not for one single job.”

About 14 percent of Harvard undergraduates major in the humanities, according to Faust—down from about 25 percent when she took office in 2007, although admitted students to the Class of 2020 indicated interest in studying humanities at an increased rate of 16.9 percent. Aiming to bolster the College’s humanities offerings, Harvard launched an undergraduate degree in Theater, Dance, and Media last year.

According to Faust, the state of the humanities nationwide is even more dire: “A lot of hard-pressed public institutions, the first thing they’re chopping off is the French department,” she said.

In recent years, she said, financial hardships have left many families hard-pressed as well, drawing many students to more vocational fields with the promise of higher-paying jobs.

“We read everywhere that this generation of Americans is likely to have less prosperity than their parents,” Faust said. “This has a very definite effect on our students.”

Moreover, Faust added, “we have many more students who are not just in college representing themselves. They're there for their whole family or their whole community.” Students from underprivileged backgrounds, she said, may gravitate toward fields where they think they will ultimately find a higher paycheck.

Faust also touched on the College’s recently-revamped General Education program, which she said is meant to offer students both a “common experience” while still allowing a “wider range of opportunities” than an explicitly defined core curriculum.

“We let our students roam a little more broadly, not having come to an agreement about which two dozen books or which particular works of art are necessary,” she said.”

The Aspen Ideas Festival was held in Colorado and hosted by the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit headed by Walter S. Isaacson, the famed biographer and current Harvard Board of Overseers member.

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