John F. Kennedy, Mark Zuckerberg, and the social responsibility of Universities

05/28/2017 08:50 am ET Updated May 28, 2017

We celebrate this week the 100th anniversary of the birth of John F. Kennedy, a remarkable US President whose leadership appealed to the better angels of the American people, helping all to set high aspirations for the country as well as for themselves. In his inaugural address, Kennedy reminded us of the importance of generous service in challenging times “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country”. Kennedy understood how in an increasingly interdependent world, this responsibility of service extended to service to the world. In a speech in the campaign trail at the University of Michigan, in October of 1960, he had asked 10,000 students “How many of you, who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” A thousand students responded with a petition to serve abroad. Two weeks later, in another campaign speech at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, he proposed the creation of “a peace corps of talented men and women” over 25,000 wrote him letters responding to this call. These were the origins of the Peace Corps which he created early in his presidency, to foster greater understanding between Americans and people of other nations.

Kennedy understood that the preparation of the people ready to engage in such service, to the nation and to the world, depended on Universities, and that Universities had to educate youth for such leadership not just in the work of the faculty in the classrooms, but also in how faculty themselves engaged in finding solution to matters of public interest. In April of 1963, as Boston College celebrated its centennial, President Kennedy addressed a convocation speaking about the role of the University. His audience included not just students and graduates, but the Presidents of Boston College, Georgetown and Harvard University. In his speech President Kennedy talked about the university’s role in connecting people across their ignorance, and he referred to the critical role of the university in helping solve some of the most important challenges of the times. President Kennedy reminded the audience that Boston College had been founded in the darkest days of the civil war, at a time when the nation was involved in a struggle to determine whether the nation could be half slave and half free, or free, and went on to say that the world was then, a hundred years later, faced with the question of whether it would half slave and half free or whether it would be all one or the other. He intended ‘to impress upon you as urgently as I can, the growing and insistent importance of universities in our national lives…’ to address the important issues of the times. Kennedy underscored four ways in which universities could serve the national interest: 1) ‘The whole world has come to our steps, and the universities must be its students’ and that universities must help accelerate global progress, 2) the explosion of knowledge in all fields, especially science, called for special attention to understanding and cultivation of people as social beings, 3) ‘As the world presses in, and knowledge presses out, the role of the interpreter grows’ underscoring the role of the university in helping educate people to know through one another, to respect truth, and 4) quoting Woodrow Wilson, President Kennedy underscored the importance of universities dedicating themselves to the nation’s service, to the new needs of the age, and ‘the school must be of the nation’.

Last Thursday, upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg addressed the graduating class highlighting also the important role of graduates and of universities in focusing on the urgent challenges of our times. He invited all graduates to engage in helping write a new social contract that would help all people find purpose, not just in the United States but in the world. He outlined three grand challenge that would help all people in the world find purpose: 1) taking on big meaningful projects together, such as stopping climate change, generating employment, curing all diseases, modernizing democracy and personalizing education so all can learn 2) redefining equality so that all have the freedom to pursue purpose, supporting risk taking and innovation, and 3) building community across the world, in defining community, Zuckerberg invited all to see themselves as global citizens: “Every generation expands the circle of people we consider "one of us". For us, it now encompasses the entire world. We understand the great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations — to achieve things we couldn't on our own. We get that our greatest opportunities are now global — we can be the generation that ends poverty, that ends disease. We get that our greatest challenges need global responses too — no country can fight climate change alone or prevent pandemics. Progress now requires coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.”

In his address to the graduates, Zuckerberg was of course not speaking just to the graduates, but also to those who teach them, to those who lead and support the institution. He was reminding us of our obligation to align our work and the work of the institution to be of service to the world, to address the bigger challenges of our times.

John F. Kennedy in 1963, and Mark Zuckerberg last week, in speaking about the social role of the University where underscoring enduring themes which are of the essence to the modern university. The modern university is, along with public education and democracy, a creation of a global liberal project to advance the values of freedom and equality. A project of humanity that replaced the order of the Middle Ages with an order build on the audacious idea that all people are equal, and that they have the right to self-rule. An order that places great trust in science and human reason as instruments that would help us improve our lives, govern ourselves, and improve the world. It is no accident that five years after the American Revolution, when the dust had not yet settled in how the new nation was to succeed in governing itself, John Adams and some of the other founding fathers, established the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an institution chartered to bring together the best scientists and public figures of the times to address issues of public importance and to educate ordinary people in understanding them. The first members invited to join the academy were Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

While there were Universities before the American Revolution, their role was not to educate people to improve the world, but to transmit religious dogma, to maintain a static status quo. Adams, Franklin and other founding fathers understood the importance of higher education to the success of the American democratic experiment. Article 1 from the Massachusetts constitution of 1780, written by Adams and still the law of the land in Massachusetts, speaks eloquently to the public purposes of our universities — at the beginning about who needed to be educated and why, and at the end about virtues they needed to learn (I thank Harvard Professor Harry Lewis for bringing this passage of our constitution and its contemporary relevance to my attention).

The quest for the role of the university in shaping a mindset supportive of democracy is illustrated in the visits that Francisco de Miranda, who sparked the war of independence in South America, paid to the Presidents of Yale and Harvard in 1773, thanks to letters of introduction by Benjamin Franklin. A similar role of the modern university in advancing the needs of the nascent democracies is illustrated in the role Andres Bello, the first president of the University of Chile, played by launching a competition for ideas about what kind of education system would best prepare the citizens of the newly independent republics, a contest which Domingo Faustino Sarmiento won with his thesis ‘Popular Education’ published in 1849, which became the cornerstone of public education in South America.

In 1811 Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia’s Minister of Education, chartered the first modern university, the University of Berlin, with a mandate aligned with the advancement of the liberal values of the enlightenment. Berlin was designed to cultivate the development of critical reasoning, to advance truth through research on matters of public importance, and to educate the larger public. In time, these ideals of the university in Berlin would be embraced by all modern universities in the world.

We live dangerous times where the values of freedom and equality, the institutions of democracy, and the sister institutions of public education and universities, are challenged by a populist ideology. An ideology that mistrusts expertise and institutions, and ideology that does not accept that there is a difference between facts and beliefs. An ideology that has no respect for science or scientific expertise. This ideology places the world at risk, it places democracy at risk, and it endangers the prospects for liberty and equality. In these times, the message of John Kennedy about the social responsibility of the University in 1963, and the message of Mark Zuckerberg last week, that we must press on with renewed urgency focusing on the most critical challenges humanity faces, that we must educate our students to take them on, and that we must make it a priority to educate and serve the larger public, are prescient and urgently important.