Harvard's Chickens Come Home to Roost?

Harvard's Chickens Come Home to Roost?

Harvard is taking flak. First, The Harvard Crimson reported that the median grade for undergraduates is an A-, with an A being the most common grade awarded. Next, the Crimson's Sandra Korn, a humanities student, wrote an article disparaging the "liberal obsession with 'academic freedom,'" for which she has received withering criticism.

Korn's critics are misdirecting much of their ire. Hers is not an act of anti-intellectual rebellion. It is not rebellion at all. She merely advocates what is taught in too many humanities classes. And not only Harvard's.

Her "Doctrine of Academic Freedom" takes recent humanities scholarship to its logical limits, asking, "If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of 'academic freedom'?" In freedom's place, she offers "academic justice," according to which "research promoting or justifying oppression" should "not continue."

The resulting conflagration compels us to reexamine academic freedom, whose justification looks to Socrates' declaration that "the unexamined life is not worth living." The deepest defense of free inquiry highlights it as the means to the highest freedom of which humanity is capable -- the freedom of the mind. On this older view, liberal education, as the term suggests, promises to liberate us from unconscious bondage to conventional opinions, e.g. partisan politics and ideology. Liberty at its peak, the "examined life," was therefore viewed as identical with both the pursuit of truth and the good life.

Today, Socrates' quest for wisdom has been replaced in too many humanities departments by dogmatic relativism, by the certainty that all visions of the "good life" are rationally groundless "values," or "commitments." Relativism's defenders intend that their denial of absolute truth will produce a more tolerant society -- not only open to, but celebrating, "diversity." Judging no way of life better than any other, they argue, guarantees "openness."

Initially, today's openness (what Allan Bloom labels the "openness of indifference") seems immune to intolerance of anything. One might think that, in an "open" society, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield would be allowed to utter his out-of-season thoughts freely. However, relativism is ultimately impotent when it comes to resisting intolerance, because it destroys genuine, Socratic openness, which, Bloom argues, "used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason," but "now means accepting everything and denying reason's power." Thus, today, "openness to closedness is what we teach."

Korn, who would "stop" Mansfield's "publishing," is the latest example of the humanities' openness to closedness. Of course, few if any humanists approve of her book-burning agenda. But is their decency justified by their principles? When relativism toppled reason, "power" or will filled the vacuum. Much of contemporary humanities scholarship seeks to "unmask" the workings of power behind (illusory) claims to objective knowledge. Past claims to "truth" are "deconstructed" to expose their real role in perpetuating hegemonic oppression over race, class, and gender relations. In contradictory fashion, they both deny absolute truth and affirm the truth of the injustice of hegemony.

Hence Korn's challenge: If Harvard "opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of 'academic freedom'?" Will having replaced reason, the uncommitted life is not worth living. How, then, can humanists, dependent on academic freedom, dissuade her from her commitment to "unprivilege" it? Reminding her that relativism intends to open her to competing opinions won't suffice, because that same relativism has closed her -- and all credulous students -- to the possibility of authoritative knowledge of the end -- the best life -- to which academic freedom serves as means. Nor will introducing Korn to Plato's Apology of Socrates move her to esteem Socratic openness, because Socrates, like all thinkers up until recently, was less the truth-seeker and more the power-servant.

In sum, according to today's humanities, reason is impotent, objectivity a pretense, and race/class/gender struggle the irreducible drivers of "all hitherto existing" history. Is it surprising that "free inquiry" now appears an intolerable sham?

Mindful of this, and to its credit, a Harvard humanities committee recently penned "Mapping the Future," addressing intolerance, at least in part -- "Mapping's" primary concern is students fleeing the humanities. Since 1966, completed humanities majors have fallen from 14 to 7 percent of degrees nationally. In asking why, Harvard confesses to driving off independent-minded students who perceive that faculty's overwhelming focus on uncovering the power-serving agendas of past thinkers brings censorship of heterodox views (read: political correctness). "Mapping" concedes, "We sometimes alienate" humanities students who perceive "that some ideas are unspeakable." "Mapping" urges faculty to "encourage real debate rather than the answers ... we want to hear."

Well said, but will this message get to students?

Critics doubt it, because "Mapping" simultaneously embraces reason's fall and power's rise in praising (as "immensely precious") the "most powerful" humanities research of "the last thirty years," which "unmask[s] the operations of power," exposing how "domination and imperialism underwrite cultural production." Harvard, critics argue, wants to have its relativist cake and eat its academic freedom, too. How can recommending "real debate" be reconciled with praising humanists' "precious" unmasking of the power-driven pretensions of past thinkers? After all, Korn serves hemlock to academic freedom precisely because it allows scholarship "promoting or justifying oppression." Obedient to humanities teaching "over the last thirty years," she "unmasks the operations of power" driving allegedly "objective" defenses of free inquiry. Speaking justice to academic power, she pierces freedom's façade.

What to do? Given the esteem Harvard enjoys among universities nationwide, we can hope it will continue and deepen the indispensable conversation "Mapping" begins. To this end, rather than worry over students fleeing the humanities, Harvard needs first to confront the graver problem -- what happens to the minds of those humanities students who stick around.

Thomas K. Lindsay directs the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and is editor of SeeThruEdu.com. He was deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under George W. Bush. He recently published Investigating American Democracy with Gary D. Glenn (Oxford University Press).

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