2001: September 11 and Education

When the term began, two days after the horrors of September 11, I asked my class to think about why they were getting an education. I'd like to think about that question a bit more today.

The acts of the fanatics who flew the hijacked planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were monstrous and shocking. Our gut reaction is that those acts are also incomprehensible, but they are not. I am not here to explain them to you today, and doubt that I myself could do that, but I do believe that they are not harder to understand than, say, how do we inherit genetic traits from our parents, or how did the universe originate, or how do babies recognize faces. If genomics or cosmology or developmental psychology is your special interest, this great university has professors and courses and undergraduate research programs to help you understand these things, or at least to understand them well.

So it is with the sources of international conflict, the social origins of terrorism, and the variants of world religions. If you want to know about these things, you can find out, and you will then better understand how thousands of people came to lose their lives two weeks ago today.

The difference between the attack on the World Trade Center and string theory is that it is too easy for us not to want to understand. We are so deeply touched, either by personal loss, or by the threat to our personal wellbeing, or by our sense that the injury is to our nation and its founding principles, that we want to react with emotion rather than reason.

Where does all this leave us here, in our precious garden of learning? The events of two weeks ago should make us think about what we want to learn and why we want to learn it. For many this may mean a focus on solving the world's problems. But to me, taking the state of the world into account doesn't mean that we have a moral obligation to learn only things of short-term service to society. We don't all have an obligation to learn Arabic, nor to take courses on the history and politics of the middle east. We don't need to be come experts in jet propulsion or naval engineering or computer technology.

But we do have an obligation to recognize the limits of our knowledge, and to acknowledge our ignorance, when we are in fact ignorant, rather than coming to sure conclusions on the basis of inadequate information and analysis. I will surely cause my elders from the Vietnam era to roll over in their graves when I say that we should rely on experts. But I would qualify that by saying that we need the skill to recognize a true expert when we see one, and to dismiss charlatans, even one with Harvard titles. I do believe that Harvard will have failed you educationally if it allows you to respect or disrespect your teachers according to whether or not they agree with your preconceptions. Even Harvard faculty are capable of propounding illogical nonsense.

But let me return to why you are getting an education at all. When I asked my class to think about why they were taking this course or that in the context of current events, I was not encouraging them all to drop their theory courses and take more applied subjects, so they could go out at the age of 21 and apply their knowledge to the solution of engineering problems. I was not telling them to drop the study of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in favor of the study of late twentieth century regional politics. I did not mean to say that everyone should worry less about Mozart and Rembrandt, so they could enter the workforce prepared to increase national productivity or decrease international conflict.

Your education is for you, and before anything else you must respond to what is in your own soul; if you are a pure mathematician or a poet at heart then there is no point in your feeling guilty that you are not a mechanical engineer instead. More important, pure mathematics, or poetry, or indo-European linguistics, has a profound beauty whose discovery can give the deep meaning to human life. Knowing how to make the actual lives of a few people, or even millions of people, more livable, less hungry, less oppressed or less endangered, may not answer, for you, the question of why your own life, or theirs, will have been worth living in the first place. Civilization cannot survive for the long run if it do not survive in the short run; but when we get past the short term crisis, we also need to have intact our ideals, and our ambitions to replenish and refresh the great works of human civilization.

Do not disrespect the scholars, because they seem to turn away from the solution of practical problems in the world as we have found it. They are searching for truths and beauties that transcend the horrors and the miseries, and also beyond the frivolities and the earthly pleasures, of daily life. You may not wish to be one of them; you may even learn, while you are here, that you cannot be, or no longer aspire to be, among their number. But it is also Harvard's role to enable you to glimpse their intellectual and aesthetic lives, amidst the wreckage and the opportunities of the temporal world.