History, reality, and idealism

Current Berkman People and Projects 2017-12-12


Today I ran into an alum I know, a distinguished medical scientist from a class in the 1950s. Remembering the institutional anti-Semitism of his undergraduate years, he was not pleased by the way President Faust and Mr. Lee characterized the Harvard he had attended:
The final clubs in particular are a product of another era, a time when Harvard’s student body was all male, culturally homogeneous, and overwhelmingly white and affluent.
This fellow held no ill will toward the final clubs he was not invited to join, but bristled at the idea that today's Harvard is different because the old Harvard was peaceably homogeneous.
An essayabout free speech by President Leon Botstein of Bard College hit a strikingly different tone. It's entitled, "To promote free speech on campus, lose the piety."
Being part of a campus can be a lonely experience. That’s why there are fraternities and sororities, secret societies and clubs. Students legitimately want to feel comfortable in a strange setting and they wish to be liked by their peers. The residential college is a particularly unnatural situation. It confines people in their teens and early 20s quite randomly in a single institution and expects civility.
But there was never untarnished civility on the American campus. There was campus violence in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is a myth that, once upon a time, everybody was walking around as a kind of incipient scholar who readily replaced violence with speech. We are still more civilized than the Harvard and Yale of the first half of the 19th century, and we are probably ahead of the civility game in comparison to the age of the panty raids of the 1950s.
There is also today a growing moralizing intolerance with respect to any sort of exceptionalism. After all, a university, particularly its faculty, is in its own charming way a collection of deviants. … Those of us who are administrators at the university understand that part of our job is to protect the freedom of thought and speech of the odd individual who has certain gifts from the rage and envy of others. …
The modern university community now expects an increasing conformism as well as standardization of expressed thought. And that finally leads to a powerful but understandable attraction to self-censorship and passivity. … We need to strengthen the belief that is still out there in the notion of truths, freedom, and rational judgment and the links that connect democracy, liberty, and social justice. 
Here is part of the penultimate draft of my remarks to the FAS. Conscious of my three-minute time limit, I decided at the last minute to put the matter differently, but what I had planned to say seems resonant with Botstein's line of thought.
It has been said that we need to be idealistic, to create the best possible social environment for our students. I too am idealistic about Harvard’s promise. But idealism is not the same as utopianism.  The actual history of utopian undertakings is not encouraging. Utopias tend to react harshly when anyone deviates from the officially approved version of social harmony. Students come to Harvard not for a social utopia, but for a liberal education in all its complexity, to understand the freedom they enjoy and how to use it.
Finally, consider what we are teaching our students, by our actions, about how to solve social problems. Let’s not teach them that bans on private associations are an appropriate way to address social ills.  As graduates they, and others, will have their own lists of social ills to be cured.  At another time and in another place, someone else’s toxic group could well be Black Lives Matter, or it could be Act Up.  We have enough calls for shunning and banning in America already today.  Let’s not teach our students to do it too.
There are other interesting developments, and more to say about the rhetoric of the Faust-Lee letter and what it says about the status and role of the faculty. I will come back when things settle down.




12/12/2017, 16:19

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Harry Lewis