Harvard President speaks humanities at inaugural lecture

Maj. Adam C. Keller Department of English and Philosophy Instructor

March 31st, 2016 | News, News and Features
President of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, spoke to U.S. Military Academy cadets, staff and faculty during the inaugural Zengerle Family lecture March 24 in Robinson Auditorium.    Photo by Michelle Eberhart/PV

“Where there is no rulebook, turn to philosophy, to history, to anthropology, to poetry and to literature. Take the wisdom and inspiration of the great thinkers and leaders who went before you, and then create your own,”  — Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University.


The U.S. Military Academy launched the Zengerle Family Lecture in the Arts and Humanities, a new initiative sponsored by the Department of English and Philosophy, by hosting Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust March 24 in Robinson Auditorium.

This lecture, which demonstrates USMA’s enduring commitment to humanities education, was the first in lecture series endowed by the Honorable Joseph (USMA Class of 1964) and Lynda Zengerle in honor of their family.

The lecture will bring a leading figure in the arts or humanities to West Point each year to enhance cadet and faculty intellectual development, foster interdisciplinary scholarship and bridge the civilian-military divide.

In recent years, the humanities disciplines have been the subject of much scrutiny and debate with critics questioning their marketability.

But as universities and lawmakers across the nation have reduced funding for these departments, USMA continues to champion a broad liberal arts curriculum that includes humanities, social sciences and STEM disciplines as the best way to foster in its graduates not only technical competence but also the critical thinking, cultural awareness and communication skills that direct that competence most effectively.

Addressing a combined audience of over 800 cadets, staff and faculty members, Faust highlighted in her lecture, “To be a Speaker of Words and a Doer of Deeds: Literature and Leadership,” the importance of a broad, liberal arts education for future officers, and indeed for all citizens.

Faust argued that the Academy has been wise to maintain its strong commitment to the liberal arts.

She claimed that the humanities, which are the core of the liberal arts, cultivate three of the most indispensable skills military leaders must possess: perspective, improvisation and the ability to use language persuasively.

“Where there is no rulebook, turn to philosophy, to history, to anthropology, to poetry and to literature. Take the wisdom and inspiration of the great thinkers and leaders who went before you, and then create your own,” Faust said.

Quoting a diverse collection of historical figures and contemporary authors, from Frederick Douglass to George S. Patton to novelist Zadie Smith, Faust also encouraged audience members to recognize the “interpretive and empathetic power of words.”

According to Faust, linguistic competence helps us to make meaning in a chaotic world and to connect with others from dissimilar backgrounds. Both skills are critical for those who must lead in complex environments, she argued.

President Faust’s daylong visit to West Point included a visit to the Library’s Special Collections, lunch with cadets in the Cadet Mess Hall and an interdisciplinary cadet and faculty symposium. This event, moderated by Professor Elizabeth Samet of the Department of English and Philosophy, was the culmination of a yearlong faculty colloquium, during which faculty members from eight different academic departments met monthly to discuss Faust’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.” The symposium gave interested cadets and faculty members an opportunity to engage directly with President Faust in a more intimate setting.

Faust’s words made a deep impact on Cadets and faculty alike. Class of 2017 Cadet Lila Garner reported that Faust’s lecture was one she will always remember because of the way that Faust made “the power of the humanities” come to life.

The force of Faust’s lecture also resonated with Col. David Harper, professor and head of the Department of English and Philosophy, who noted that Faust’s visit “inaugurated an annual event that will bolster the stature of the arts and humanities at USMA and in the national conversation.”