Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Harvard College Freshman Pledge

This is a fascinating report, from Virginia Postrel, "Harvard Now Values ‘Kindness’ Not Learning." For example:
Kindness isn’t a public or intellectual virtue, but a personal one. It is a form of love. Kindness seeks, above all, to avoid hurt. Criticism -- even objective, impersonal, well- intended, constructive criticism -- isn’t kind. Criticism hurts people’s feelings, and it hurts most when the recipient realizes it’s accurate. Treating “kindness” as the way to civil discourse doesn’t show students how to argue with accuracy and respect. It teaches them instead to neither give criticism nor tolerate it.
And at Bits and Pieces (the blog of Harvard Professor Harry Lewis, "The Freshman Pledge":
Its purpose is to make people think and to induce conversation on the important matter of civility and generosity. I am assured that the intention is not to make anyone feel compelled to sign the pledge.

In this case, alas, the line between an invitation and a compulsion is exceedingly narrow, and I doubt those who explain it to students can consistently do so with the required nuance. The pledge is delivered to students for signing by their proctors, the officers of the College who monitor their compliance with Harvard rules and report their malfeasances to the College's disciplinary board. Nonconformists would have good reason to fear that they will be singled out for extra scrutiny. And their unsigned signature lines are hung for all to see, in an act of public shaming. 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.

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. Though it refers to sound institutional values affirmed at Commencement, the pledge pretends to affirm them not through the educational process to which the Dean testifies, but through 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.
Chilling. Our very highest institution of learning, once again seen as among the most totalitarian.

Via Maggie's Farm.


Steven Givler said...

Harvard hasn't been our nation's highest institution of learning for many years. It still trades on its reputation, but like anyone else who gets along by selling themselves to the highest bidder, their reputation is worth less all the time.

The old Ivy League is being eclipsed by schools like Hillsdale College, where classical Liberal Arts educations are still valued, and where government intervention is held at bay.