Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Kinder, Gentler Harvard

This fall incoming Harvard freshmen are being invited to sign a “kindness pledge.” It’s not about good behavior, but about having good feelings. Somehow someone in the Harvard administration has come to believe that good feelings make for good community.

If so, Harvard’s intellectual standards are not what they used to be.

For the record, here’s the 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.”

Some have argued that Harvard is now taking seriously its role as moral educator seriously. Others have suggested that competitive striving toward academic excellence ought not to be sacrificed on a bonfire of moral vanities.

Once you decide to value how you feel over how you behave toward others you have entered the realm of moral vanity.

Harvard administrators are now promulgating soft moral values, like kindness, niceness, and empathy. Next thing you know, incoming freshmen will be ”encouraged” to have therapy. The better to increase their empathy quotient, their EQ.  Only they will call it sensitivity training. 

Oh, actually they do it already. At Harvard Law School. Dorothy Rabinowitz reported in 2002: “At Harvard Law today, skill in hard combative argument is no longer prized, nor even considered quite respectable. Indeed, first year law students can hardly fail to notice the pall of official disapproval now settled over everything smacking of conflict and argument. That perception can only have been strengthened by a new program for freshmen, called ‘Managing Difficult Conversations.’

“In the lesson books provided, students learn the importance of empathy. ‘Emotions need to be acknowledged and understood before people can problem solve,’ another lesson teaches. In a book by the program's chief creators we learn that ‘A Difficult Conversation Is Anything You Find It Hard To Talk About.’ Not the sort of wisdom that would have taxed the minds of the students. Still, the purpose of the three-hour sessions did elude one otherwise accepting attendee, who reports that the discussion leaders seemed to circle around specific issues, and that he had the feeling there was a real subject here not yet clear or acknowledged.”

Harvard students are supposed to be the best and the brightest that America has to offer. America’s future depends on the brilliance and accomplishment of young people like these. In four years they will go out in the world and carry the American banner in international competition against their fellow students from China and India.

Do you really think that they will become fierce competitors by learning to be kinder and gentler than their competition? Or are they just being set up to be losers? What if Harvard asked its students to sign a pledge whereby they promised to be as weak and ineffectual as they were brilliant?

I would venture that these students did not get to Harvard because they were kinder and gentler than their classmates. Why does Harvard feel a need to discourage qualities in which these students have already demonstrated excellence?

Isn’t that “the most unkindest cut of all?”

Prof. Harry Lewis reminds us of a 1943 Supreme Court decision that explicitly warned against policing moral sentiment. The decision, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, reads: “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.”

Incoming freshman  should learn one thing from this episode: beware of ideas that seem so self-evidently true that no one can possibly object to them. As the Court understood, getting into the business of telling people what they should and should not  feel establishes a dangerous precedent.

If there’s a problem at Harvard, it isn’t that students are too unkind; it’s that they are nice to the point of being afraid to offend. Virginia Postrel reports that students are so afraid to offend that they do not express their opinions in class, lest they hurt the feelings of someone who thinks differently.

She writes: “Meanwhile, to their peers, Harvard students may, if anything, be a little too nice. Some veteran faculty members tell me that the students’ drive to succeed manifests itself in a surprising way. A social norm has emerged, they report, in which students avoid saying anything that might make others look bad in class, even if that restraint means stifling discussion.

“’I note in the current generation of undergraduates a tendency to hold back on disagreement or criticism of other students in class,’ says Jeffry Frieden, a political scientist. ‘They’re much more respectful of each other -- much more than when I was an undergraduate. If someone states an opinion, even if absurd, they take it in stride’.”

But, where do you draw the line between kind and pusillanimous? What is the difference between kindness and timidity? How much of what looks like kindness is really fear?

Besides, imagine the football coach trying to rally his team for the big game by telling them: Go out there and be kind!

Clearly, athletes should be encouraged to show good sportsmanship. But good sportsmanship is not the same thing as kindness. Sportsmanship means following rules; kindness does not.

Prof. Lewis makes the salient point: “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.”

Acting and feeling are not the same thing. You can be kind to others by making formal gestures of respect. They do it all the time in Congress when they preface remarks with lines like: My esteemed colleague…. and, With all due respect.... Formal gestures of respect allow vigorous debate that no one should take personally.

In a diverse community like Harvard frictions are inevitable. Students come from different parts of the country and the world. They practice different customs and manners.

There is nothing strange about this. The strange part is believing that these students will all get along if their hearts are brimming over with kindness.

A better solution is to have codes of conduct and rules of good behavior. They need not be written down. They can certainly be informal. They will allow moral sentiments to be generated by respectful behavior. They will show that we understand that kindness that is not prefaced by good behavior is empty and meaningless.

The British code of gentlemanly behavior prescribed gentleness, but it did so by setting forth a code of conduct, rules that everyone could follow in order to interact harmoniously in society.

At the least a university should encourage the values of hard work and academic achievement.  It’s a university, after all, not a mental health center. If it does not value the highest level of academic success, what is its reason for being?


JP said...

Admittance to Harvard Law is basically a prize that you win. These days, the goal is to get in. Once you are in, you just have to spend three years there to get your certification stamp. It's a consumer good.

Half of law school admittance is based on the LSAT, which is essentially an intelligence test, as far as I could tell.

You don't even need to attend class in law school these days. You're just buying a signal to the marketplace showing that you're "elite".

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I'm beginning to think that the world is catching on... and that these grads, for all their impressive credentials, are not going to have it quite so easy going forward.

David said...

Skill in "hard combtive argument" is not in any way incompatible with personal kindness. Often the person who is tough in debate will be a lot kinder, when the chips are down and kindness actually costs something, than the mealy-mushy individual.

I think the nature of a career as a university administrator selects for a particular kind of individual, and the values promulgated by such people are unlikely to be workable for any functioning society as a whole.

Dennis said...

To reenforce David's comment, the combative nature of our nation's troops is second to none, but they are almost the first to provide help and assistance to those who need it, especially children. It is one of the reasons that our nation's adversaries have used children against our soldiers.
To know violence is to better understand the need for compassion. It should surprise no one that some of the most violent "non violent" people exist on the Left and they exhibit the least amount of compassion for others. They do not know violence.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

David and Dennis make an important point. Those who make kindness an all-important value end up with people who cannot compete and thus are so resentful that they often cannot manage the least amount of courtesy and genuine kindness.

Dennis said...

I am not a fan of professional wrestling, but through their fund raising interests I have gotten to know some of them. They are some of the nicest most caring people I have met. When you know violence you quickly come to know compassion.
I hope I am not "ratting" them out?