Harvard's sorry self-understanding


Drew G. Faust is the new president of Harvard University, and on October 12 she delivered her inaugural address.

There is much to admire in what she said, particularly her criticism of a purely instrumental view of the purposes of a university. For instance, she said: "The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future -- not simply or even primarily to the present. A university is not about results in the next quarter. . . . It is about learning that molds a lifetime, learning that transmits the heritage of millennia. . . . Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure. . . . We are uncomfortable with efforts to justify these endeavors by defining them as instrumental, as measurably useful to particular contemporary needs. Instead we pursue them in part 'for their own sake,' because they define what has over centuries made us human, not because they can enhance our global competitiveness." Let the people say Amen.

She alluded to John Winthrop's famous sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630 about being a "city upon a hill." But now the cause is not the gospel of Christ or the errand of Israel into the wilderness but the intellectual eminence of Harvard. Later, she is more explicit.

"The 'Veritas' in Harvard's shield was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion. We understand it quite differently now. Truth is an aspiration, not a possession. Yet in this we -- and all universities defined by the spirit of debate and free inquiry -- challenge and even threaten those who would embrace unquestioned certainties. We must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt, to the humility of always believing there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand."

Far from being an "uncomfortable position," one might suggest that the denial that truth can be possessed is the orthodox prerequisite of being comfortable at Harvard and institutions with a similar self-understanding.

Dr. Faust does not possess the truths that she is so vigorously pronouncing. Is not her imperative of doubt an unquestioned certainty? Far from being an "uncomfortable position," one might suggest that the denial that truth can be possessed is the orthodox prerequisite of being comfortable at Harvard and institutions with a similar self-understanding.

Does she suppose that the universities of Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Cambridge in the High Middle Ages denied that "there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand"? As I said, there are many good things in this inaugural address. But, whatever its merits, it does not reflect an understanding of education that is "timeless," nor is it informed by the truths that "define what has over the centuries made us human."

In its basic presuppositions about truth and learning, her address obediently conforms to the historical, conceptual, and social parochialism of Harvard at the beginning of the twenty-first century -- and of other institutions that mistakenly believe that Harvard defines what it means to be a university.


Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. "While We're At It." First Things (The Public Square) 181 (March 2008): 61.

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Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy", Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

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