Honoring the Past – Harvard Reflects

The future isn’t what it used to be.~ Yogi Berra

In her annual fall address this Wednesday, President Drew Faust focused on the theme of history, not just that of the university, but also the nature of history and what it means to be a learning community. “Morning Prayers,” as it is has been called since the university’s founding, has traditionally marked the beginning of the academic year with a brief reflection for the Harvard community. No doubt the approach of Harvard’s 375th anniversary next month makes it an auspicious occasion to give pause, for the nation’s oldest university to look back at its rich history—not to linger, but to reconnect, to acknowledge its long legacy and to acknowledge the best of what was and to play it forward, creating its best future yet.

Faust recounted that in the space of just a few years of the first settlers’ arrival in the New England wilderness, and because of the bequest only a few years later of colonist John Harvard’s books and wealth, the new nation’s first institution of higher learning was founded. Establishing Harvard College also served to underscore the early settlers’ commitment to learning and scholarship for the fledgling country as the firm foundation of a learning nation.

Today not only does the community consist of students, faculty, and staff, as well as alumni the globe over, Faust noted, but also all those who have gone before, who have left a legacy of outstanding human achievement. For a countless number of individuals provide a continuum of achievement stretching almost four centuries, in every sphere of human achievement: from the highest levels of public service and the arts, to intellectual and scientific discoveries—including 50 Harvard Nobel winners.

Finally, Faust emphasized the contribution of those individuals, who through their courage and sacrifice gave their lives in the highest service to their nation. “This is a history,” Faust explained, “that nurtures aspiration, that inspires us with what is possible and reminds us what is necessary – the responsibility that accompanies education and opportunity, the privilege to contribute to purposes larger than ourselves.”

It is the nature of history, Faust explained, to release the stronghold of the present and to establish a connection with the past, a way to give a new perspective while feeling connected and having confidence in that continuity. It reminds us that not only have we survived past challenges, but also that we can go forward with the same commitment to the “unwavering importance of learning and knowledge, to values that endure in their dedication to human potential – in the 21st century as in the 17th.”

Yet, rather than a tether to the past, continuity also means change. Each generation is charged with seizing opportunity by co-creating and re-creating a world that far surpasses the one we have known. History marks the beginning of the future, Faust explains, because “it offers us the foundation for imagining a different world and understanding what it takes to build it. To have a history is to have a context – for both insight and action.”

However, as Harvard professor Tu Weiming noted in his 2010 book, America went from being a learning nation to a teaching nation. To imagine a better world will require an entirely revamped education system that will create a culture of dynamic lifelong learning—a nation that is inclusive, open to many new ideas and multiple entry points for creativity. Only then will America reclaim its moral footing and its position of first in the world in innovation.
Read President Faust’s full address:

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