Speaking Frankly, at West Point
Drew Faust gave one of the signal speeches of her Harvard presidency at West Point this past March. The subject was education in the humanities—and in leadership. Her talk brought to the fore common Faust themes: immersion in the arts and humanities and learning to think critically about values. The venue and format (a formal address, rather than the occasions where an interlocutor poses questions, and Faust’s answers are briefer) made a difference.

At the United States Military Academy (USMA), as Faust noted, “the humanities are resources that build ‘self-awareness, character, [and] perspective,’ and enable leaders to compel and to connect with others.” She identified three ways in which that occurs. “First,” she said, “leaders need perspective”—the historical and cultural lenses that clarify a situation through “empathy: how to see ourselves inside another person’s experience. How to picture a different possibility.” Second, “leaders need the capacity to improvise. I often point out that education is not the same thing as training for a job.…Circumstances evolve. Certainly, soldiers know…that our knowledge needs to be flexible, as we grapple with complexity in an instant.” Third, she emphasized how leaders like Churchill and Lincoln “use the persuasive power of language.”

Two broad applications to Harvard come to mind. One concerns transitions. West Point, Faust noted, was “the nation’s first college of engineering.” Now, even as “other institutions drop liberal-arts requirements, military academies have been adding them. Over the past 50 years, West Point has transformed its curriculum into a general liberal-arts education, graduating leaders with broad-based knowledge of both the sciences and the humanities, and the ability to apply that knowledge in a fluid and uncertain world.” The College, grounded as it has been in the traditional liberal arts, is very much tilting the other way, expanding engineering and applied sciences, and inspiriting entrepreneurship. That prompts anxieties about waning student interest in humanities and adults’ responsibility to assure that their charges are broadly, not merely vocationally, educated.
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