West Point Cadet Chapel (Dave Whelan January 17,2009)

This is an abridged version of a speech given at the West Point Military Academy, New York, by the President of Harvard University.

It is a supreme honour for me to be here today at West Point. I come from a family with deep roots in the military, and it is a great source of family pride that my great-grandfather graduated from West Point in the Class of 1883.

His name was Lawrence Davis Tyson, and it wasn’t till I recently received a copy of his transcript that I discovered he was 51st in his graduating class. Now that doesn’t sound too bad, except that in the Class of 1883 there were 52 students. Great-Grandfather Tyson must have been deeply grateful for Clarence B. Edwards, cadet number 52, who saved him from being the “goat.”

Now, of course, his ranking was better than that of George Armstrong Custer, who was the goat in 1861, but worse than that of Ulysses Grant, who was 21st out of 39 in the Class of 1843. And Grant confessed to spending a good deal of his time here devouring novels.

Now, in fact, as I found reading through my great-grandfather’s papers, he seems to have shared with Grant something of an affinity for language. As a young second lieutenant, my great-grandfather was stationed in the West, where he met my great-grandmother and began writing her passionate and quite poetic love letters.

He confessed in one: “I fear I should weary you if I wrote oftener.” For their first Christmas of knowing one another, they sent each other identical scarf pins in the shape of a sword — and they crossed in the mail. My great-grandfather took this as an “omen” of their unity, a bond that would bring him, he said — in his words, “No more quarrels or wars … each of us has surrendered to the other his sword.” 

He was trying to win with the pen what he had not yet won with the sword. His advances — on all fronts — raise a larger question. West Point cultivated in my great-grandfather a considerable capacity for leadership: He commanded a regiment in the Spanish-American War, and then in 1918 he served as a general on the Western Front, where his brigade took terrible losses as it broke through the Hindenburg line.

While he was with his troops in France, his only son, a naval aviator, was killed when his plane crashed into the North Sea. Only after the Armistice did General Tyson go to England to claim the body. Tyson was later elected to the United States Senate, where he was serving at the time of his death.

Now, given his low marks as a cadet in almost every subject, the evidence provided by his eloquent letters might suggest that his way with words played a role in his eventual successes. Including, of course, with my great-grandmother, who he clearly hoped would surrender more than her sword pin. And here I am.

I want to focus for a few minutes here today on the importance of language to leadership, on the interpretive and empathetic power of words on which leaders rely, and on the necessity of the humanities and the broad liberal arts education that nurture these indispensable qualities.

Now, it is daunting to talk about leadership at West Point, which has been training leaders since 1802, while much of the rest of the world has merely been talking about it. Starting in the late 19th century, the word “leadership” in English-language books climbed rapidly, until today a search for the word yields more than 180,000 entries for books on Amazon and 1.7 million entries in the Harvard University Library catalogue. As someone said, so many books, so few leaders.

Two millennia of wisdom and more than a century of analysis leave us with enduring questions: What makes a leader? Are leaders decisive or flexible, are they visionary or pragmatic, are they for themselves or for others? And how do we create more of them?

It would seem we agree on little, except that a leader inspires others to do what they might not otherwise do. At the same time, I look out today on one of the finest leadership training grounds in the world and I see something of an answer: This is not just the nation’s first college of engineering, the school of my great-grandfather (and I still, in fact, have the leather case that holds his engineering tools). This is now an institution deeply and deliberately committed to the liberal arts. 

There is very good reason for that commitment. A recent British Council study shows that more than half of leaders around the world hold humanities and social science degrees. Seventy-five percent of business leaders say that the most important skills in their work are the ability to analyse, communicate, and write, the skills at the heart of the humanities.

And yet the liberal arts education that imparts these skills is under assault. Legislators dismiss anthropology, art history, and English degrees as impractical. They call for “more welders and fewer philosophers,” as one senator put it, while cuts in funding threaten humanities departments at colleges and universities across the country.

Students are following suit. The proportion of bachelor’s degrees in humanities disciplines has declined to 6 percent nationwide, the lowest level since reliable records began in 1948. 

How, then, do we explain West Point, and its thriving humanities departments? As other institutions drop liberal arts requirements, military academies have been adding them. Over the past 50 years, West Point has transformed its curriculum into a general liberal arts education, graduating leaders with broad-based knowledge of both the sciences and the humanities, and the ability to apply that knowledge in a fluid and uncertain world.

Here, the humanities are resources that build “self-awareness, character, [and] perspective,” and enable leaders to compel and to connect with others. I want to touch on how that happens, in three crucial ways.

First, leaders need perspective. Novelist Zadie Smith, quoted in Professor Elizabeth Samet’s new anthology on leadership, calls the capacity for perspective, and I quote her, the “gift” of the “many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility.” The West Point system for leadership development describes it as “the expansion of a person’s capacity to know oneself and to view the world through multiple lenses.” We might call it a passport to different places, different times, and different ways of thinking. 

Anthropologists give us perspective on the ancient enmity of Sunni and Shia Muslims; literature, on the seductiveness of war. Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, and West Point Class of 1973, describes a star on his team of diplomats named Laura Tedesco, an archaeologist who together with Afghans excavated an ancient Buddhist kingdom near Kabul.

They unearthed, amidst landmines and passing Taliban fighters, precious evidence of a more inclusive and tolerant Afghan past that gave people hope. This work is a testament to what Eikenberry calls the “intrinsic value of the humanities” in successful global engagement.

Such inquiry teaches us how to scrutinize the thing at hand, even in the thick dust of danger or drama or disorienting strangeness. It imparts skills that slow us down — the habit of deliberation, the critical eye, skills that give us capacity to interpret and judge human problems; the concentration that yields meaning in a world that is noisy with information, confusion, and change.

The humanities teach us many things, not the least of which is empathy — how to see ourselves inside another person’s experience. How to picture a different possibility. As General Omar Bradley put it, “A leader must possess imagination.”

My own field of history offers perspective on ourselves and others, through interpretation of the evidence of the past. Data does not stand on its own; history does not actually “tell us anything.” Historians tell us.

General Patton wrote to his son, then a West Point cadet in 1944, “To be a successful soldier you must know history … [D]ates and even the minute details of tactics are useless,” he continued. “What you must know is how man reacts … To win battles you do not beat weapons — you beat the soul of man.”

Second, beyond perspective, leaders need the capacity to improvise. I often point out that education is not the same thing as training for a job. Jobs change. Circumstances evolve. Certainly, soldiers know, in the chaos of battle, that our knowledge needs to be flexible, as we grapple with complexity in an instant. If perspective opens eyes, its multiple lenses give us the ability to act creatively, to improvise in the face of the unexpected.

Craig Mullaney, West Point Class of 2000, writes in his gripping book The Unforgiving Minute that the first rule of warfare in Afghanistan was this, and I quote him: “The closer you look, the less you understand.” One sergeant’s motto, he says, became “Semper Gumby” because of the flexibility each new crisis required from the troops.

Mullaney writes: “Problem: no armor. Solution: drive faster. …We did what every infantryman in history has had to do in combat: We improvised.” Improvisation. Flexibility. Contingency. The art of the possible. This lies at the heart of why we pursue the liberal arts.

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

Winston Churchill, one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders, was a war correspondent before he turned 21. He recognized warfare as a kind of performance, wherein success can depend on the capacity to imagine ourselves into our roles.

He wrote: “The courage of the soldier is not really contempt for physical evils and indifference to danger.” It is instead “a more or less successful attempt to simulate these habits of mind … to be good actors in the play.”

Churchill soon found himself devouring books on history, philosophy, economics, and religion, driven by what he called “the desire for learning,” and because, as he put it, “I … had a liking for words and for the feel of words fitting and falling into their places like pennies in a slot.” Churchill put pennies in that slot again and again, delivering some of the most compelling words in the history of warfare.

Which brings me back to now a third point — how leaders use the persuasive power of language. Churchill understood this powerful tool of leadership at a very early age. In his last term as a cadet at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, he gave his first speech, standing on debris outside a row of London bars, rallying a rioting crowd against a movement to prohibit liquor.

He said, to rapturous applause, “You have seen us tear down these barricades tonight, see that you pull down those who are responsible for them at the coming election.” Now, another young man had started the protest by poking holes in the barricade, but Churchill finished it by telling them what it meant.

Decades later, he did the same for England in World War II, creating a narrative of resistance that defied German bombs. How appropriate that his Nobel Prize was not for peace, but for literature.

But sometimes it may seem that words fail us. The history of war is filled with invocations of the inadequacies of language to convey the truth of it. I have found such observations again and again in soldiers’ letters and diaries from the Civil War: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called the experience of war “incommunicable.”

In 1862, a Confederate private wrote his father, “Language would in no way express the true picture as it really was.” As Tim O’Brien put it a little more than a century later in The Things They Carried, “You can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it is just beyond telling.” The “real war,” as Walt Whitman had reminded us, “will never get into the books.” And yet, still they wrote. Poets and privates, struggling to derive and convey meaning from the chaos of experience.

We have been telling war stories for millennia, endeavouring to understand, to reconcile the inhumanity of war with the humanity of words. As literature has struggled to capture war, its leaders have armed themselves with literature — because leaders necessarily strive to understand well enough to know and to explain why and where, and to what end, and what next. According to Plutarch, Alexander the Great slept with two things under his pillow: a dagger, and a copy of Homer’s Iliad. 

And Lincoln. Lincoln, whose ability to make a compelling case for the war and for the United States as the “last best hope of earth,” was no small part of why 2 million Northerners were willing to leave their homes and families to risk their lives for the Union.

The Gettysburg Address, 272 words spoken in November 1863, created a different America. We know their cadence like a national poem: “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

War defined a landscape of unimaginable death. Lincoln defined the purposes of the war. He said what he wanted it to mean. As historian Garry Wills has put it, “Words had to complete the work of guns.”

Lincoln’s relationship to words illustrates another important aspect of language and leadership: the dynamic interconnection between the creators of words and their own language. Language often takes on a life of its own.

Lincoln used the process of writing to clarify his thinking; to explore and pursue the logic and implication of ideas. I am sure you have had this experience in writing papers: Who has not written the introduction to a paper last? You finally know what it was you wanted to say once you’ve worked out all the intricacies of the language of saying it. As one novelist has put it, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”

Lincoln embraced the emancipation of slaves gradually, through the words he shaped in a dialogue with himself. “I thought about it and studied it in all its phases,” he is said to have told a Union Army sergeant, “long before I began to put it [down] on paper.” A lifelong conversation is not a bad way to describe the study of the humanities, a path of discovery where we set our inner compass as we go.

The ability to have a dialogue with oneself is also the ability to have dialogue with others, across time and space. Lincoln’s words live long beyond their delivery date, leading on without him. Words have implications — and consequences. We are still trying to live up to the Gettysburg Address.

In Homer’s Iliad, a tutor comes to Achilles and his task is to teach the young man two vital things: “To be both a speaker of words and a doer of deeds.” A page on the West Point Department of English and Philosophy website opens with this quotation, and then adds, “This was Achilles’ ideal, and could be yours.”

We share this call to action: To be speakers of words and doers of deeds. To lead, as my great-grandfather might have said, toward no more quarrels and no more wars.

In closing, I ask you to heed that call. Lead on behalf of each other. Lead on behalf of the nation. Lead, also, on behalf of the liberal arts — of the traditions of human experience and humane insight that they represent. Recognize the importance of the attributes they have given you, mark their presence in your lives, advocate for them in the lives of others. Keep your own Iliad under your pillow. Be the world’s best force for the humanities — and thus for human possibility.

Drew Faust is an American historian and President of Harvard University. Read the original speech.