Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Freshman Pledge

I think for the first time in history, Harvard is "inviting" all freshmen to sign a pledge. This is what it says:

Class of 2015 Freshman Pledge
At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows, and Overseers that "each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society." 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. 
As we begin at Harvard, 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.
The names of the students in the entryway are printed below the pledge, and the students are to sign by their names. The document is to be framed and hung in the entryway throughout the year.

An appeal for kindness is entirely appropriate. Apparently there has been too little of it in the Yard sometimes. But for Harvard to "invite" people to pledge to kindness is unwise, and sets a terrible precedent.

First of all, it would be a 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 US 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."

But, it may be objected, no one is required to sign 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.

On the face of it the pledge is so benign that one might reasonably accuse me of making a mountain out of a molehill. But the right to be annoying 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. In the words of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case involving compulsory flag salutes, "Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men. … As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent  on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity. … Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."

I want to stress that I concur with the ends. I do not condone rudeness or incivility in students, and I agree that the exercise of personal kindness in this community is too often wanting. But trying to get students to sign a pledge, in their first days on campus, is not the way to build a healthy community. After all, there is plenty of faculty rudeness too; why would we not ask the faculty to join in this communitarian commitment? The way to create a kind community is to model kindness, not to tell the most junior members they should be kind while not expecting others to meet the same standard. Who, except for our clerics, has urged kindness on the rest of the community?

Because I fear the precedent, I am planning to propose legislation to prevent pledges like this from being promulgated in the future. I am tweaking the language and would welcome editorial suggestions, but here is my first crack:
Students shall not universally be requested, invited, or expected to commit to any pledge or oath that would oblige them to curtail their freedom of speech or thought.
I am not sure how much of an explanatory note the legislation would require, but to be clear:  This is Faculty legislation, so the subject of the passive is implicitly the Faculty; this would not prevent a student organization from offering a sustainability oath, for example. Nor would it prevent a specific group of students from being expected to make certain promises and commitments before being given access to certain privileges, equipment, or information not generally available to undergraduates. Nor would it preclude commitments to act in certain well-defined ways (not cheat, for example), if the Faculty ever wanted to propose such a regime. (I am not in favor of such a code, but I am not trying to preclude it here.)

A thought in closing. This pledge is tied up with the "Community Conversations" that take place during freshman week, in which entryways discuss readings about diversity and community. The readings vary from year to year, but one text, no longer used, was once constant: excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance. This is a difficult text, and always a conversation-starter. It is an ennobling and empowering essay, but it also makes it clear that Emerson would have been the roommate from hell. I think, if the Pledge had been around in his day, he would have refused to sign it.


  1. While kindness is often less valued than intellectual achievement at Harvard, during my Harvard experience Dean Harry Lewis provided a notable exception. Dean Lewis was my boss for three years as the Teaching Fellow for CS 121. He invited me over to his house for Thanksgiving when he found out I had no nearby family to go to. He always had time and a kind word for me.

  2. College is a great place to make mistakes, be rude,
    and LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE that this is NOT a good idea.
    This is far better than pledging to not be rude.

  3. Thank you for your sensitive and considerate reaction to this. As there are at other universities, there must already be so many untouchable topics in Harvard dorm rooms (selfishness and altruism, global warming, the persistent pervasiveness of racism in America, among others) that could easily be construed as stretching the boundaries of "kindness" in the eyes of those who regard such things as beyond discussion. To require a public posting is positively scarey.

  4. Agreed, this is a dangerous precedent - to "encourage" students to sign a pledge that basically says they will not be rude. And to make it worse the school posts all the names of the incoming Freshman students that shows those who sign and those who don't sign such a pledge. As a college professor myself, I can imagine all the flack that fellow professors would generate if such a pledge were posted for all professor with their names and signatures of those who sign and don't sign. Such a pledge would be enough to make me reconsider attending or teaching at such an institution.

  5. Thank you for drawing attention to this. I agree the pledge is misguided. Morrison says it best. Back in my day, the fact that Harvard avoided sanctimonies such as an "honor code" was a positive thing, a sign of realism and trust in its people.

    What would be an effective way for an alum to suggest that such a pledge should be considered for removal? (Lobbying Faculty Senate members, perhaps? )

  6. Nice to hear from you, ephermata! I believe alumni letters should always be answered thoughtfully and respectfully, so alums should direct their inquiries, thoughtfully and respectfully, to the appropriate members of the university administration. I actually used to enjoy writing back to alums who wrote to me, or whose inquiries the President passed on to me; doing so helped me figure out what I really thought and made me realize how things looked from outside the cocoon.

  7. As a freshmen, I was given this pledge to sign and I did sign it. Our proctor at the time of signing it said that it was nothing like a contract or some official document which we could not break because all of us were sure to break it at some point of time in the next four years.
    This was supposed to create a moral barrier and hence help us to act morally and in such a way that our actions could be fully justified in all situations.
    I do not quote her but what she said implied this.

    I, personally, do not have a strong stand-point either for or against the pledge since it does not look like a contract and in future if it is made one, I will take a stand against it. At the present time though, as a moral barrier, it might serve a small part of the purpose it is intended for, which in turn might benefit us all.

    Though I also agree with Professor Lewis in his argument that not signing the pledge in the first week is not a good idea and hence students might feel forced to sign it, irrespective of the fact that it is termed "voluntary". And also with his statement, that the faculty members should be given something similar to sign too, which of course will again be "voluntary".

    That said, I'm waiting to see where this debate goes.

  8. Thanks, Rishav. I am not sure this account makes me feel any better. It sounds like the message is that you should not worry about signing it because it is not really committing you to anything, just creating a modest "moral barrier." If the thing is going to exist at all, I might prefer a system where fewer people signed but a higher percentage took the pledge seriously. Weird.

  9. This is an interesting ethical argument. I would love to see it enhanced it with an academic argument as well: "Not only is this immoral, but studies show it probably won't even work."

    A perfect hit would be research into whether people who sign a quasi-voluntary "kindness pledge" are kinder or become kinder over time. If that's not a real thing, it might be interesting to see research around whether people who sign loyalty oaths are more loyal or become more loyal over time.

    If you're willing to examine studies about pledges to behave a certain way (compared with pledges to think a certain way), there's always Harvard alum Janet Rosenbaum's 2009 paper "Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers" (http://www.pediatricsdigest.mobi/content/123/1/e110.short).

    Her study found that "Five years after the pledge, 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged" and the results overall suggested that signing a pledge to behave a certain way did not actually influence behavior.

    A quick look doesn't turn up any similar research on how "thinking oaths" relate to the way people think a few years after they signed the oath, but I'd be fascinated to hear a more informed academic perspective. (Looking back, there's Britomar & Squier, "Attitude towards special loyalty oaths at the University of California", American Psychologist 10(3): March 1955, whose abstract says that "the nonsigners were markedly less authoritarian than the signers.")

  10. Fascinating comment, Michael. Thanks a lot. The parallel with the abstinence pledges hadn't occurred to me, though several other analogies (sustainability pledge, MBA oath) had been offered.

  11. Here here!

    It's funny, because one hears a very similar argument among those who study parenting behavior and why children rebel. From spectacularly early ages, even young children have the basic sense to understand the difference between a parent merely telling them what to *do* and a parent telling them what to *think*. Not so surprisingly, most children rebel rather strongly against attempts at the latter. It's the basic distinction telling a child that they had better like their teacher vs telling them that they had better treat their teacher with respect irrespective of their personal feelings.

    I'd hope that Harvard, which I hold dear, would be wise enough to understand that basic distinction if even small children do. Granted, societies and other such groups have a right to establish their own norms of behavior ask an individual member to follow them (no public nudity, duels, etc) but this right ends at that person's external behavior and never, under any circumstances, crosses into their very thoughts.

    -A not-so-distant alum

  12. Great to talk to you too. Maybe even a paper letter is appropriate for the occasion. Thanks for the clear suggestion!

  13. Harry,

    I very much enjoyed your discussion of the freshman pledge. Despite having a Harvard freshman this year, I hadn't heard about the pledge (and I don't know whether she signed it). I certainly support the *idea* behind the pledge -- that people should strive to be kind and respectful -- but exerting pressure on first-week freshmen to publicly sign such a pledge just seems like a misguided idea.

    As an alum and parent, I think I will follow up with the administration as you suggest. Thanks for raising this issue and sharing it with us.


  14. What exactly is this about? To me, "to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility" sounds like code words for a ban on opposition to affirmative action and illegal immigration.

  15. It would actually have been helpful to have some concrete examples of what problem the pledge was meant to solve.

  16. While Harvard might not have required a religious test as Morison suggests, having read the 1646 Statutes of Harvard College, it seems inaccurate to suggest that Harvard did not demand complete adherence to a specific set of religious beliefs by its students in its first century.

    This doesn't negate the power of your overall argument, only suggest that the effort to link to the earliest days of Harvard's history is somewhat weaker.

  17. What Statute are you referring to?

    I don't think either Morison or I claims that Harvard did not have rules about this sort of thing. The question is whether Harvard students were required to take an oath swearing to it.

  18. Which is more problematic, rules which prohibit behavior upon threat of expulsion (1646) or a somewhat coercive request to sign a pledge that isn't coupled with enforcement (2011)?

  19. I have no idea what your point is. My only point was about whether Harvard has pledges. Then Harvard had rules and threw people out who violated them. Same thing today, just different rules. Then Harvard did not ask students to pledge to do or not do anything. Now we have rules, but today for the first time we also have pledges we "invite" people to sign. That was the only point of my historical reference.

    As to how to think about this particular pledge, I really over-intellelctualized it by comparison with Charles Fried's cogent analysis.

  20. This sounds to me like a reaction to the Harvard Administration's disgraceful denunciation of that poor Harvard Law School student whose private email cogently explaining to some friends the evidence on links between race and IQ was leaked by a romantic rival. The crimethinker got denounced by HLS dean Martha Minow. Now, the Harvard bigshots want something concrete they can pin on dissidents: "You pledged to be nice. Reading 'The Bell Curve' is Not Nice."

  21. How very curious this “kindness pledge,” how intellectually and morally bankrupt must be the minds promoting it?

    Doubtless, “kindness” is a wonderful concept to promote. However folks may very strongly disagree on just what constitutes “kindness.” For instance, your new roommate can’t seem to make and keep friends. You know the issue is that you clueless roommate has horrendously bad breath. Is it “kind” to tell your roommate, with all the resulting hurt feelings, or to say nothing and thus be “kind” by not hurting feelings but cruel by not helping to solve a potentially easily curable problem? Different folks may have very different opinions.

    For this and numerous other sound reasons, many folks feel a very strong revulsion, on principled moral and philosophical grounds, to all such pledges even though they may completely agree with the basic concepts of the particular pledge in question.

    So, riddle me this. Just how “kind” is it to attempt to coerce easily intimidated freshmen, through brazen attempts at public humiliation and bullying, to sign a pledge when many find the very notion of all such pledges morally repugnant? As instituted, this whole “kindness pledge” program is, in fact, the very antithesis of “kindness.” It is rank bullying. It demonstrates for the whole world to goggle at just how small minded, dogmatic, intolerant and all around intellectually bankrupt mainstream thought at Harvard has become. This sort of vicious hypocrisy is a fine exemplar the reason that the value of a Harvard education is becoming so profoundly devalued in the public eye.

  22. Dean Lewis (you'll always be my dean!), I am grateful for your principled and reasoned opposition to this "voluntary" pledge (which has now been reported in the Toronto Globe and Mail). I too find it "odious" and wonder to what problem it is hoped that this will be an effective response or solution. I can't help but feel that the late Reverend Professor would have had some stern words for the drafters of this pledge...

    Jesse Billett '01

  23. You state: 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.

    The pledge states: students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

    And: a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.

    It seems to me this pledge tells you how to act, not think (see verbs "act," "exercise," "uphold"). In this world where shock and disrespect have become cool forms of entertainment, I rather like the pledge. That said, I am not sure that this means I have to be inclusive for all points of view - pedophilia, bestiality, cannibalism. But I think when applied with common sense it is a wonderful pledge.