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.