Dear Members of the Class of 2020:
Welcome to Harvard and to the Division of Arts and Humanities!
A dazzling array of intellectual possibilities awaits you. During the next four years, you will be cultivating new interests and mental habits to last a lifetime. Seize this moment to explore the arts and humanities! No matter what career you choose, you will always be grateful that you opened your mind to the big questions and great works at the heart of a liberal arts education.
The study of the arts and humanities prepares you for life. It makes you better able to articulate and communicate ideas, to evaluate arguments, and to appreciate an unfamiliar point of view. In the words of President Drew Faust, it teaches you “how to imagine, adapt, interpret, change, create.” Rather than prepare you for a particular imagined future, the arts and humanities prepare you for the unpredictable future that actually lies ahead.
The study of the arts and humanities is a social pursuit. Every major challenge that we face as a society compels us to answer basic questions about who we are, what we value most, and how best we can live together. The arts and humanities address these questions through deep thinking and conversation, renewing our understanding of such matters as community, justice, intimacy, conscience, beauty, technology, and belonging. In this way, the study of the arts and humanities enables us to meet the pressing needs of our day.
The study of the arts and humanities is world-opening. Through texts, artifacts, music, and art, it connects students to cultures and people from around the earth and across history. It sharpens our senses and trains our sensibilities. It extends our linguistic, material, and experiential capacities, making us nimbler and more discerning participants in a complex and quickening global society.
At Harvard, the arts and humanities curriculum encompasses an array of disciplines, including the study of literature, philosophy, religion, architecture, languages, and music. It also ranges across various fields of art making, from dance and creative writing, to sculpture and animation. An increasing number of students combine humanistic study with creative practice, finding new ways to acquire and communicate knowledge. Many students also cross boundaries between disciplines to create hybrid fields of inquiry. Some students are exploring the intersection of literature and climate change; some, the relationship between art and social justice; and some, the cultural complexities of migration. By these and many other boundary-crossing routes, students are combining the deep interpretive work of the humanities with contemporary concerns.
In research, teaching, and learning in the arts and humanities, Harvard has moved to the forefront of higher education. As part of this effort, the faculty has developed new courses designed especially with freshmen in mind, courses that transcend the usual limits of classroom experience. These pathways into the arts and humanities give students unique opportunities to work closely with professors, to use Harvard’s unparalleled historical collections, to join faculty for excursions to cultural landmarks and events in Cambridge and Boston, to engage in hands-on learning, and to become acquainted with research questions and methods.
Study in the arts and humanities is valuable without being vocational. It prepares us to think and communicate, to envision and learn. It enriches our lives while preparing us to enrich the lives of others. Being an effective leader or participant, whether in politics, education, business, or the arts, means understanding the power of stories. At the heart of every worthy enterprise, whether a political campaign, a charter school, a software application, or a theater company, there is a compelling story about making things better. By studying the great stories of the past and present, students in the arts and humanities learn about themselves and about their world, while also learning how to tell – and through telling bring about – the stories of our future.
For these reasons, students who study the arts and humanities experience the transformative pleasures of critical reflection, while also training themselves to be constructive agents of social change. A survey of recent graduates offers abundant evidence of the capacity of the study of the arts and humanities to prepare students for the challenges of our times. Our students have gone on to become entrepreneurs, doctors, NGO officers, and venture capitalists, as well as professors, journalists, novelists, and film-makers.
Success of any kind in life usually stems from doing what you love. The arts and humanities offer unsurpassed opportunities to find intellectual passion at Harvard and thus many paths to success and delight in the world. I invite you to explore them.
You can learn more about the scholars, artists, and visionaries in the arts and humanities at Harvard through our Facebook and Twitter pages. Enjoy what remains of the summer. I look forward to meeting you during Opening Days.
With best wishes,
Dean of Arts and Humanities
Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography