Harvard President Awarded First Sesquicentennial Medal
Faust Speaks On The Benefits Of Liberal Arts
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, was honored as the first recipient of Boston College’s Sesquicentennial Medal in a ceremony on Wednesday.
BC President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., said in his introduction that Faust’s scholarly career has brought “a world of distinction to the academic setting.”
In her remarks, Faust focused on the value of a liberal arts education in the modern world.
Faust, a Civil War historian, noted that after the Civil War a generation of reformers founded the first research universities and pushed for a greater focus on rationality and practical education.
In this new world of education, she said, the teaching of character and the development of broader thinking skills were often ignored.
“Fact and value were no longer so easily aligned,” she said. “In Boston, this argument played out between Boston College and Harvard in a battle of words that would have done the Beanpot proud.” Harvard allowed its students to create a curriculum based on their own interests, while BC focused on molding character through a set program of study.
Although Harvard has since adopted a more focused curriculum, Faust said, the debate over the benefits of a liberal arts education continues today.
“In our need to know facts … we forget the fact that we are all interpreters who need not just information, but meaning,” she said.
Even research universities rely heavily on the often-serendipitous union of fact and curiosity, Faust said. According to her, this tension is essential to the advancement of universities and, in turn, of the students that attend them.
“The scholarship that has served as the beating heart of research universities is founded on curiosity,” she said.
Faust noted that BC’s fundamental principles of scholarship, justice, and service are just as important today as they were 150 years ago.
“Boston College has opened vistas and possibilities for tens of thousands of individuals, and challenged them to think of the good they can do in their lives,” she said.
Modern universities must ask themselves not only what the education they provide is for, but also whom their education is for, Faust said.
“The challenge now is to deliver on the promise education represents and to make sure it is available and affordable,” she said.
Faust noted that women make up more than half of bachelor’s degree recipients in the United States today and that minorities represent one third of both Harvard’s and BC’s freshman classeses.
“Education has long been critical for participation in society … and the well-being of individuals and nations,” Faust said.
This is even more important today, she said, in light of the fact that 84 percent of jobs now require at least a bachelor’s degree.
After her speech, Leahy presented Faust with the Sesquicentennial Medal. Faust is the first of three recipients who will be honored with the award this year.
A brief question and answer session followed the official ceremony.
When asked about the role private universities have in supporting public universities, Faust said that the most important commitment of any university is to focus on the broad goals of education rather than economic gains.
“An education that wears out and has a shelf date,” she said, is more of a luxury than an education that supports learning for its own sake.
Faust said that many university administrators abroad are, in fact, concerned that their programs are too narrow and are looking to the American liberal arts education system as a possible source for solutions.
“We will waste something that has been such a strength for American education,” she said.
Faust was also asked how she justifies the cost of her recent expansion of Harvard’s arts programs to those who consider getting a degree as a purely financial gain.
“The arts are a critical part of learning and cognitive development,” Faust said. From engineers to artists, she said, people have increasingly shown a desire to make new things.
“The capacity for interpretation and reinvention lies at the heart of liberal arts,” Faust said. “Innovation means imagining a world different than the one we inhabit.”