Notes & Comments October 2011
Veritas or Vanitas
On virtue at Harvard.
One thing we always thought you could expect left-liberal progressives to repudiate was loyalty oaths. After all, “loyalty oaths” and “McCarthyism” go together like Birkenstocks and a commitment to “green energy” (so long, of course, as the windmills don’t block my view). Is there anything more noxious to liberal sensibilities than McCarthyism—i.e., the effort, named for the ill-fated Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, to enforce a politically correct line?
Ask Thomas Dingman, Dean of Freshman at Harvard College. Apparently, he believes that it depends on the correctness of the political line you are trying to enforce. Anti-Communist McCarthyism is of course repugnant. But how about certified, suitably sentimental McCarthyism? That, apparently, is something else again, at least so far as Thomas Dingman is concerned. As The Harvard Crimson reported early last month, Dean Dingman asked incoming Harvard students to sign the “Class of 2015 Pledge.” “Are you now or have you ever been . . .” No, wait: that’s a different script. The Class of 2015 Pledge offers what Dean Dingman calls a “moral compass”: “That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.” “Inclusiveness and civility,” eh? Including what? Civility to whom? “As we begin at Harvard,” this emetic document continues,
we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.
“Kindness”? “The most important thing,” Dean Dingman said, “was to get our values out. Things like respect, integrity, kindness. We want to have an environment in which people can flourish academically.”
Notice the non sequitur? We want an environment in which people can excel academically (“flourish” sounds kinder, gentler, than “excel,” doesn’t it?), so we tell them to be as inoffensive as possible. Note, by the way, how often a commitment to something like integrity is at odds with a commitment to kindness. One requires intellectual honesty, which is often the opposite of kind. The other trims the sails of truth to cater to people’s feelings. It’s the difference between an adult virtue and an indulgence for children. Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, asked the right question in the title of his column about this preposterous piece of left-wing McCarthyism: “Does Harvard Want Bold Thinkers or Good Little Boys and Girls?” Don’t let the “Romper Room” rhetoric fool you, though. It’s really “Be Kind. Be Inclusive. Be Civil. Or Else.”
Harry Lewis, a Professor of Computer Science at Harvard and, for eight years, the Dean of Harvard College, wrote a polite but devastating column on his weblog “Bits and Pieces” about his colleague’s experiment in semi-soft authoritarianism. It was, Lewis noted, the first time in Harvard’s long history that its students were “invited” to declare their allegiance publically to an ideological position. And “declare” is the mot juste. For what Dean Dingman didn’t want was to confine himself to rounding up signatures or private confessions of zeal. He wanted a public performance in which students’ peers—and of course their Deans and other authority figures—could see who had signed and who hadn’t. In the entryway of every college dormitory, the names of the student residents were to be printed below a copy of the pledge. Students were invited to sign by their names. Those who did publically proclaimed their virtue, or at least their willingness to conform. Those that didn’t—well, we know who you are, Comrade.
As Professor Lewis notes, Dean Dingman’s Pledge “sets a terrible precedent”:
Of course, students regularly commit themselves to pledges and oaths at the behest of student and national organizations. But I am unaware of another instance in which the university itself has asked all students to sign a pledge. In fact, Harvard has a deep and ancient antipathy to pledges and oaths. . . . The Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison, writing on pages 339–341 of The Founding of Harvard College, describes how remarkable it was that Harvard did not, in any of its founding documents, follow the practice of its British ancestors in requiring a religious oath of its students. “Our founders knew from their English experience,” Morrison writes, “that oaths are powerless to bind conscience. . . . Accordingly this academic vessel was provided with the barest possible code of statutes, and her master and crew, unhampered by oaths and religious tests, were left to exercise their best judgment, as God gave it to them.”
In more recent history, President Pusey raised his voice in 1959 to object to U.S. legislation that would have demanded that certain scholarship recipients swear to uphold the Constitution. Loyalty oaths, even ones affirming unexceptionable principles, are, as Pusey put it, “odious.”
Odious indeed. Professor Lewis goes on to note that the “substance of the pledge is critically important. This is not a pledge to refrain from cheating, or to take out the garbage. It is not a pledge to act in a certain way. It is a pledge to think about the world a certain way, to hold precious the exercise of kindness. It is a promise to control one’s thoughts.” That’s it in a nutshell. We might all agree that kindness, civility, etc., are attitudes and habits to be encouraged. But while Dean Dingman pretends to be simply affirming such anodyne sentiments, in fact the histrionic spectacle he orchestrated would act as a “prior restraint on students’ freedom of thought. A student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind.” What do you suppose Socrates, the gadfly of Athens, would have had to say about that?
We suspect that Professor Lewis is on board with a lot more of the politically correct agenda in academia than we are, but he dissents with it on this critical point: “the right to be annoying,” he writes, “is precious, as is the right to think unkind thoughts. Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of rights to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college.” Amen to that. In the face of widespread criticism, Dean Dingman has taken a half a step back. The Crimson reports that, although he stands by the “message” of the pledge, “concerns over its implementation” have led him to reconsider publically displaying student signatures. The “concerns” in question, we surmise, refer to the fact that his effort to impose groupthink had the misfortune to attract negative publicity. If only Harry Lewis and fire hadn’t got into the act! Then there wouldn’t be any “concerns” and the “community expectations” could have been more forcefully enforced.
In fact, the Class of 2015 Pledge at Harvard raises a number of important issues. There is, first of all, that constellation of issues we congregate under the banner of academic freedom, freedom of conscience, intellectual independence, and similar rubrics. But there are other issues as well. For one thing, there is the question of the point or end of higher education: Do we send young men and women to Harvard to learn to be kind and inclusive? Or do we send them there to learn history, math, chemistry, and political philosophy? Granted, there is a moral dimension to a liberal arts education. The question is whether that dimension is best served by ostentatiously subscribing to current progressive pieties or by encouraging more traditional academic virtues like respect for truth and a commitment to disinterested inquiry.
This is something that Harvey Silverglate and Adam Kissel touch on in their excellent reflection on this unfortunate incident for MindingTheCampus.com. Dean Dingman touts the virtues of civility, inclusiveness, and kindness. But isn’t that a bit narrow, especially for an institution supposedly dedicated to higher education? “Dingman’s interpretation of Harvard College’s values,” they note, “is intellectually and morally weak.” Where, they ask, are the cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, and courage) on his roster? Where are the theological virtues (love, hope, and faith)? Benjamin Franklin enumerated thirteen virtues (including cleanliness, chastity, and humility): they don’t make the cut. Ditto Aristotle’s intellectual and moral virtues, “and everybody else’s.” The point is, they conclude, “in a world where there is such a difference of opinion as to what truly is virtuous and what is merely vacuous, it seems not to have occurred to Harvard’s Dean of Freshmen that this arena is one for a student’s intellectual and moral exploration, rather than a fit subject for administrative fiat.”
It seems appropriate that Harvard’s color is crimson: the color of shame. And as for Harvard’s proud motto, Veritas, the Class of 2015 makes Vanitas seem much more apt: Vanitas, not “vanity,” exactly, but emptiness, unreality, untruth. There’s been a lot of talk about the “higher education bubble” in recent months. When the bubble finally bursts, obnoxious adventures in political correctness like the Class of 2015 Pledge will be duly totted up and incorporated into the historical epitaph.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 2, on page 1
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