'Quick payoffs wrong path' for education: Harvard Head calls for long view


THE FOCUS on higher education as a fundamental engine of economic growth can distort our understanding of all that universities should and must be, the president of Harvard University cautioned yesterday.

In an address to the Royal Irish Academy, Dr Drew Faust said this could devalue research investigation that may not yield immediate payoffs or solve concrete problems.

“The intensely competitive global economy has driven governments, everywhere critical partners to higher education, to demand more immediate, tangible returns on their investments. Too often such an emphasis on the short term can mean especially painful cuts for disciplines whose value, though harder to measure, is no less real,”she said.

She said noted educationalist Salters Sterling had recently reminded us in The Irish Timesthat “any government worth its salt must be every bit as concerned with the humanities as with technologies”.

Dr Faust said that when “we define higher educations role principally as driving economic development and solving society’s most urgent problems, we risk losing sight of broader questions, of the kinds of inquiry that enable the critical stance, that build the humane perspective, that foster the restless scepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge”.

Too narrow a focus on the present can, she said, come at the expense of the past and future, of the long view that has always been higher learning’s special concern. She said the value of a good liberal arts education was being challenged in the US and elsewhere in a world intent on bottom lines and measures of utility.

Dr Faust also expressed concern at the manner in which the recession has driven globalisation into retreat.

“As the world oscillates between openness and insularity, many worry that we are entering a more inward-looking period, when states begin to resurrect old boundaries and national concerns trump international aspirations.’’

Dr Faust, the first woman president of Harvard also met Taoiseach Brian Cowen yesterday. According to Mr Cowen, the main focus at the meeting was how the potential offered by Ireland’s strengths in the humanities, social sciences and creative disciplines can be harnessed to stimulate economic recovery and address complex social and policy problems.