Sunday, September 18, 2016

Nazis, communists, and sororities

We have passed the Godwin’s law threshold in the discussion of the motion prohibiting discrimination against students on the basis of organizations they join. I have now heard more than one argument along these lines: “OK, maybe the College’s new policy is overkill. Harvard should leave the sororities alone and go after the sketchy final clubs in some other way. But your motion is worse overkill in the opposite direction. It would protect the rights of Nazis to be nominated for Rhodes Scholarships!”

The motion would provide no such protection. In fact, the motion would have no impact at all on the standards Harvard presently uses to honor students; it would simply stop Harvard from changing those standards. Students are responsible for their words and deeds. A student who spouts white supremacist garbage should expect to be culled out of any competition in which good character is a criterion—whether or not he is officially a member of the Nazi Party.

What about someone who is exposed as a member of the Nazi Party but doesn’t talk about it or anything else related to race or politics? That unlikely scenario would be decided in the usual way—by getting more information, discussing, and exercising human judgment, not by applying a rule. If certain organizations were automatically prohibited, what would be the protocols for keeping the list up to date? No such list would be needed to exclude students who belong to hate groups. The problem with being in such a group is not the membership card.

If tempted by the Nazi example to conclude that there are some groups just too horrible for honorable Harvard students to join, faculty should remember how recently the shoe was on the other foot. In 1953, several members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences were disparaged by Senator Joseph McCarthy for being members of the Communist Party. Wendell Furry, a genial and eminent professor of theoretical physics, was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and was indicted for contempt of Congress when he refused to name others who had been party members. McCarthy demanded that Harvard fire him, and President Pusey courageously refused.

We, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, were then happy then to have Harvard stand behind our freedom to join organizations. Should we now withdraw the same privilege from our students?

Ah, you may say, but today’s Harvard has better judgment about good and bad organizations than Congress did then. We would go after only obviously terrible organizations, like the Nazi party. So the motion is a bad idea because it would tie Harvard’s hands to go after Harvard students who join obviously horrible organizations.

Can we really have confidence that Harvard, given the opportunity to demonize students for their organizational memberships, would not succumb to pressure—internal or social—to move the horribleness line? Our record on students’ rights is far from unblemished. Things that were once unthinkable have now become unquestionable. The equal treatment of black students, who were barred from the Houses when they were opened. The rights of gay students, who were persecuted mercilessly by President Lowell. The equal status of women undergraduates, who were originally relegated to the “Annex,” and who as recently as 1999 could be Harvard students only by having “special” status as Radcliffe students, with their own dean, president, and distinctive diploma. In every case, students and social movements have been ahead of Harvard’s wisdom about what is best for students.

It is the height of arrogance for Harvard to declare that in 2016, it knows better about the private choices of its students. Yet Harvard’s confidence in the judgment of its students is at a modern low—they were not even consulted about the policy. No vetting through the constituted Committee on Student Life, no Town Halls or discussions in the Houses—just the announcement, complete with a presidential imprimatur, at the very moment students were leaving for the summer.

We take pride in being a diverse community, and also in our transformative impact on our students. But the transformative impact Harvard has on its students is itself diverse and unpredictable. We do not aspire to transform all members of our student body into believers in Harvard’s values, as we choose to define those values at the moment we and they are here. There is no single Harvard culture and it is not the job of the faculty to create one.

Our students include intentional nonconformists, out of step with our institutional thinking and that of society at large. We have students whose needs we are not meeting, and who do not wish to be told that they may not seek off-campus what is missing from their Harvard lives. If these students choose to form or to join organizations, then we can decide to keep those groups off campus if their policies don’t comply with Harvard standards. But we shouldn’t, ever, discriminate against students because of those private choices that they make. They are free adults as well as Harvard students, coming from diverse backgrounds and headed, in just a few years, back into the full complexity of American society. To punish them for joining clubs, political parties, or other off-campus organizations would be patronizing, to use the very accurate language of the Verba report.

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations for this lucid and compelling post. The Harvard administration should be ashamed of itself.