Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Kindness Revisited

In a series of posts on this blog a year ago (here, here, and here), I raised my worries about the "kindness pledge" that incoming freshmen were invited to sign. In the original plan, the signatures would be posted in the entryway of the dormitory, so that those who refused to sign would be known to the members of the entryway. This year there was no pledge, but there was sensitivity training instead. I didn't pay much attention to it, but Harvey Silverglate and Juliana DeVries have a good analysis called Harvard, Where Civility Trumps Free Speech. If it is unfair in its factual reporting, I hope someone will let me know.

These programs grew out of the "community conversations" that have been run for years, in which small groups of freshmen read and discuss texts with faculty and staff group leaders. Part of my concern with the programs is that the texts are more politically correct and less challenging than they used to be. Excerpts from Emerson's Self-Reliance used to be one of the texts, but is no more. This year's list is shown below. Was there really no alternative to including the Obama text as required reading for all freshmen, two months before the first election in which many of them will vote?

I have taken some heat from people I respect (I would not mind taking heat from people I don't!) because these programs are so well intended. There are some values we would like our students to have, not just for the sake of peace in the dorms, but because the world will be a better place if our lawyers and politicians and business leaders and so on are all more civil than they typically are today.

That is all true. But the reason these efforts seem so juvenile to me, beyond the nature of the texts, is that there is so little mention of these kindness values elsewhere in the institutional discourse. Silverglate and DeVries mention the litigation about tips involving the Faculty Club waitstaff; that is, perhaps, a bit of a cheap shot. A better example might be the amusement and utter absence of institutional shock that greeted President Summers' public declaration a year ago that the Winklevoss brothers were assholes. Here, in case you missed it, is what he told Fortune:
One of the things you learn as a college president is that if an undergraduate is wearing a tie and jacket on Thursday afternoon at three o'clock, there are two possibilities. One is that they're looking for a job and have an interview; the other is that they are an a**hole. This was the latter case.
If any dean said at the time that it was unkind for President Summers to suggest that students who dressed up to visit the president were assholes, I must have missed it. (And by the way, I don't know the Winklevoss brothers, but it is not that unusual to see Final Club guys in jacket and tie, even when they are not going to see the president of the university.)

Of course there are daily examples of rudeness and thoughtlessness at Harvard--I would not suggest that such incidents are worse or more frequent here elsewhere in the Boston area, but we certainly don't talk about them much. (Boston is a ruder place than, say, Michigan--it used to be a signature of the famous eatery Durgin Park that you could count on the waitresses insulting you.)

So I think the Silverglate-DeVries critique is right on. The freshman exercise is more about peacekeeping, at some cost to free expression, than it really is about creating a kinder Harvard community. I don't doubt that the deans would be glad to see everyone at Harvard be kinder, but they are carrying out their limited mission in a vacuum and without a larger support structure. And while peacekeeping is a good and necessary thing in a residential college, in a serious university there are other, sometimes conflicting values at stake.

This year's readings:

A More Perfect Union, Barack Obama
Whistling Vivaldi , Claude M. Steele
Choosing the Color of My Collar, David Tebaldi ’10
Every Asian American I Know Is Smart, Frank H. Wu
Who Is the Surgeon? , Chris Barrett, GSAS ’12
Psalm, Wislawa Szymborska
Demographic Snapshot of the Harvard Class of 2016 

1 comment:

  1. "Part of my concern with the programs is that the texts are more politically correct and less challenging than they used to be."

    Well, these are the wages of progressivism. Its feature not a bug.