Does Harvard Want Bold Thinkers or Good Little Boys and Girls?

Harvard has missed something that I fear much of our society has lost sight of: Even if by some weird and lucky coincidence we happened to be right about every belief we cherish, we nevertheless tend not to understand why we hold those values until they are challenged.
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Freshmen arriving at Harvard this year may not know it, but they are making history -- and not in a good way. For the first time in Harvard's multi-century history, students are being asked to sign a pledge to warm and fuzzy values. Students will pledge to conduct themselves with "civility," "inclusiveness," and "kindness," along with "integrity, respect, and industry," and Harvard explicitly asks students to affirm that "the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment."

Given the, well, nice-soundingness of these values, who on earth could possibly object to such a pledge? For starters, no less than former Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis.

In an eloquent blog post last week, Lewis explained many of the reasons why pressuring students to sign loyalty oaths to even seemingly unobjectionable values is antithetical to what Harvard has always been about. Lewis argues that "Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of rights to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college." He also debunks the claim that the pledge is voluntary in any meaningful sense: students are approached by resident advisors with disciplinary powers when they first arrive on campus, they are "encouraged" to sign, and, having done so, their names are added to a list of signatories which is posted on the entryways to the dormitories. Students not signing the agreement are therefore subject to "public shaming." Lewis writes, "Few students, in their first week at Harvard, would have the courage to refuse this invitation. I am not sure I would advise any student to do so."

Students, commentators and others may be asking themselves, "Seriously, what's the big deal with signing an oath to kindness?" Some of the easier answers include these: that doing so infantilizes adult students and treats them like Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts; that research shows few results from such pledges; that serious ethical infractions like cheating are already unmistakably banned under Harvard policy; and that students may sign it for all the wrong reasons, either out of a desire to fit in or a fear of being targeted by the administration.

But the deeper answer to that question gets back to some of the core principles of what higher education is supposed to mean, principles that some at one of the world's premier universities have apparently forgotten.

Despite conjuring up stuffy images of elbow patches, tweed and busts of Ovid, the growth of higher education throughout the centuries is closely related to some truly radical ideas. It is part of a grand tradition that rejected blind faith and dogma to instead ask questions that cut to the very heart of human knowledge: Is there a divine creator? Are human beings fundamentally good or fundamentally evil? Can the laws of the universe be understood by a human mind? It is crucial to remember that for great swaths of human history merely formulating these questions would be considered heresy -- literally -- and attempting to answer them, as people like Giordano Bruno would discover, could get you killed. Designing institutions where asking such controversial questions can result in tenure instead of being burned at the stake is progress, to my mind!

To truly flower, colleges and universities had to allow their faculty and students to think boldly, argue bravely, and question everything -- absolutely everything -- in order to better understand the world we live in. Revolutionary thinkers from Descartes (who questioned whether or not we even exist) to Einstein (who subverted the way we look at time and space, in a way that still confuses people) represent a willingness to strip away commonly held assumptions and test them against reality and argument. This spirit of debate and experimentation was not merely a reflection of the scientific method, but a larger intellectual movement that author Jonathan Rauch calls "liberal science" in his brilliant short book Kindly Inquisitors. The basic rules of this radical intellectual order are that no argument is ever really over; that there is always a possibility that you may be proven wrong; that no one can claim special authority or access to a general truth; and that the process of critiquing, analyzing and arguing over ideas is open to everyone. Nowhere are these values more important than in higher education, a fact even recognized by the Supreme Court, which noted in the 1950s that any limitation placed on students and faculty members of our great colleges and universities could lead our nation to "stagnate and die." That's serious language, but if figuring out the nature of reality isn't serious business, nothing is.

And this process is not for the faint of heart. Treasured values are routinely discarded, destroyed and sometimes resuscitated in this process. Great thinkers throughout history have rejected the importance of civility and even kindness in the pursuit of truth. Socrates is said to have described himself as a horsefly -- a bug stinging the asses of the Athenians. John Stuart Mill in his famous 1859 work On Liberty saw right through claims by censors that they simply wished to keep the dialogue "civil" as an excuse to punish any speech they didn't like. That very same year, Charles Darwin produced his Origin of Species which, while civil in tone, was saying that some of the most basic and treasured assumptions of European civilization were simply wrong. That's practically the definition of incivility, and to many, even to this day, Darwin's argument was considered far worse than "unkind." Nor was it kind for Copernicus, Galileo or Kepler to take away the heart-warming certainty of a geocentric universe, and Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, and Emile Zola (and, for that matter, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Sarah Silverman) may be fairly described as occasionally downright mean-spirited in their castigation or mockery of the societies in which they lived.

And we are all better for it.

Even inclusiveness has not been an unquestioned value. It seems especially ironic that a fundamentally elitist institution like Harvard would claim that inclusiveness is one of its greatest values. Keep in mind, this is an institution that rejects the overwhelming majority of people who apply, then pits them against each other for grades, kicks out some for failing, heaps glory upon those who succeed with particular distinction, and takes credit for the earth-shattering accomplishments of its hyper-elite graduates.

And think of what this pledge means for those Harvard professors who extol and explore thinkers from Nietzsche to Plato who reflect the hope that there are special people among us who should lead us and instruct us, not just in the academy, but in all of society. Harvard seems to be saying that the leaders of its undergraduate college have concluded that Nietzsche and Plato were wrong on this subject and, worse still, that students should just trust the administration and unquestioningly accept college-approved values. I personally am no fan of Nietzsche and would find living in Plato's Republic to be a lot like hell, but is Harvard really saying the moral issues of justice and virtue posed by their work are all settled?

Harvard has missed something in this case that I fear much of our society has lost sight of: Even if by some weird and lucky coincidence we happened to be right about everything -- every value we hold, every belief we cherish -- we nevertheless tend not to understand why we hold those values until they are challenged. Perhaps a better way to get students to appreciate kindness, civility and inclusiveness is to have them actually argue for the opposite values, or even try to live without them for a little while. But in so doing, the administration would risk students coming to believe that in some cases civility is not the highest of all values (after all, our country was founded by folks who were downright impolite to authority), and that there are times when you choose between being truthful and kind. ("Yes, those pants do make you look fat -- and only a good friend like me would tell you.")

Is Harvard's administration afraid that if students don't pledge to be kind and civil, their rigorous examination of Harvard's preferred values might leave them with the idea that things, well, aren't always that simple?

Harvard College probably believes it has done something relatively benign and in the interest of the greater good, but they ought to understand that by pressuring students to take an oath to these values or, indeed, any philosophical standpoint, they are creating new dogmas. Higher education is at its best when it understands that bold, free-wheeling intellectual experimentation is what you want to cultivate if you want a genuinely innovative and dynamic environment. (It's noteworthy, in this regard, that Harvard has not asked its faculty to swear any such civility oath!) But the Class of 2015 Pledge demonstrates that at least some at Harvard think that this process is too hard, and that it's better to harken back to a time when students were seen as empty vessels and institutions of education were simply there to shove truth into their blank little heads.

Harvard needs bold, courageous, iconoclastic thinkers, but this pledge indicates that the dean would really prefer good little boys and girls who don't make trouble. Harvard should know better than to promote unreflective certainty right at the time when students most need to be embarking on the truly difficult work of challenging their own assumptions and learning to think for themselves. So I appeal to the Harvard administration: Be brave, live up to the best principles of higher education, and recognize that there is no place for conformist oaths at Harvard.

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