The Elephant and the Harvard Question

David Randall

                A recent article at The Harvard Crimson by Luca F. Schroeder, “The Elephant in the Room: Conservatives at Harvard,” provides the latest iteration of “Conservatives in the Mist” at the Ivy League. (“These shy beasts, well camouflaged, are rarer by the year. We should be cautious as we destroy their habitat and hunt them down, for perhaps we might benefit from their survival.”) Schroeder tracks down different subspecies of Harvard conservative—the relatively prevalent RINO, and the vanishingly rare social conservative—and introduces the reader to the hardships of their lives in the harsh and unwelcoming Harvard ecosystem. He then assures us that these creatures merit conservation, so as to allow normal Harvard students an opportunity to sharpen their liberal arguments while they are still young. In maturity, as they migrate to their accustomed nests in power centers around the country, the mature Harvardian will need to rule a population which still contains startling numbers of conservatives: he cannot thrive if he does not know how to counter conservative defenses. Schroeder’s conservative interviewees eagerly endorse this argument: better to be preserved for hunting practice than to be exterminated as vermin. So we bid farewell to the Harvard conservative, doubtless not to be seen again until another slow news day at the Crimson.

                Schroeder intends well by this article: he writes to encourage a more generous attitude among liberal Harvard students toward their conservative fellows, and we should commend him for his good will. Nevertheless, it is an article whose implications reveal limitations of Harvard, and of the imaginative scope of liberal good will within Harvard. These implications are worth exploring—not to impugn Schroeder’s generosity of spirit, but to encourage him, and his readers at Harvard, to apply it to a wider frame of reference.

                Consider first that Schroeder interviews conservatives about their feelings of social marginalization, their memories of thoughtless left-politicization of putatively apolitical events, their experience of liberal closemindedness and ad hominem attacks, their anecdotes of casual public hatred and obscenity directed toward figures such as Ronald Reagan and Ayn Rand—and that no one he interviews claims the conservatives are mistaken about any fact they claim. A Harvard administrator says the university has corrected past abuses, and the leader of the Harvard College Democrats says his fellow students should be tolerant—but there is no argument about whether Harvard students are intolerant of their conservative peers. The only dispute presented is whether Harvard students should care about or limit their intolerance.

                Schroeder’s article also describes the nature of the acceptable opposition at Harvard—RINO, libertarian, conservative only on economic matters, and apologetic about any conservative who actually espouses social conservatism. The article’s closing quotation, from Cameron K. Khansarinia ’18, catalogs the various things conservatives need to prove at Harvard—“that our party is not full of racists, is not full of homophobes, is not full of nativists.” Fundamentally, “The burden is on us to show that we’re good people.” What tolerant Harvard students want, it would seem, is a sort of East German opposition—one which accepts the leading role of the Left as a condition for its survival, and which provides the show of liberty rather than its substance. The less tolerant students, it seems, have difficulty stomaching even that façade: “academic justice” is supposed to trump academic freedom.

                Perhaps the most discouraging part of Schroeder’s article is the way political commitment is presented as an immutable given. No Harvard students seem to arrive at the College uncertain of their politics; none conceive of the possibility of changing their minds; none seem to consider that education might challenge their partisan affiliations rather than provide them better tools in their service. Every Harvard student, conservative and liberal, seems to share this assumption—but it is most important as it affects the liberal majority, for the assumption shapes the justification of liberal tolerance of conservatives. Tolerance of conservatives is intended to strengthen liberal thought; there is no consideration of the possibility that in free conversation with his professors and peers a Harvard student might reconsider his liberalism and become conservative. Schroeder presents an argument for liberal tolerance that presupposes an incurious, complacent belief that is not even aware that it could be challenged.

                Of most significance to readers outside Harvard is the peculiar misdirection in Schroeder’s sentence on the national implications of Harvard’s political culture: “The culture created at Harvard might well be the culture in Washington in a generation, and if we want to foster an atmosphere of respect on Capitol Hill we could do worse than starting by opening dialogue at a time and place where future political leaders are most malleable, most impressionable.” This sentence gives the impression that Harvard’s political culture is something new, when it has been overwhelmingly liberal, and unwelcoming to conservatives, for a generation and more. The degree of liberal intolerance may be greater now than it was, but nothing of Harvard’s political complexion in 2015 would greatly surprise a Harvard student from the class of 1990. In other words, it isn’t our future governing class that is at issue, but our current one. This article would lead one to suspect that liberal graduates of Harvard, and of its peers, are also intolerant of conservative opinion, complacently incurious of thought beyond liberal orthodoxy, and ready to grant intellectual legitimacy only to a narrow band of apologetic conservatives whose deviation from liberal orthodoxy is confined to the economic realm. This conclusion will not surprise a conservative reader—but a liberal reader might take it as a prompt to introspection.

                Such introspection, indeed, is what is most missing from Schroeder’s article—and, we may fear, from Harvard. It is bad enough that Harvard seems to prefer political commitment to civility, and takes pride in a remarkably exclusive mentalité that it calls tolerance. What is saddest is that Harvard’s complacency inhibits the openness to be changed that is essential for true education.  Tolerance is not meant to be a clever tool; it is meant to accompany a willingness to learn from other people, a willingness to consider that you might be wrong, a willingness to discover a truth you had not already known. We all should be willing to engage in such discovery—but at Harvard now, it seems most pressing that liberal students apply such discovery and introspection to their political beliefs. If they cannot even imagine becoming conservatives in the mist themselves, then something is wrong with their education.

                It may be too late to open the minds of Harvard graduates of yesteryear; the old do get set in their ways. But it is not too late for current Harvard students to practice introspection, and begin a true education. And indeed, they could do worse in such a course of study than to approach their conservative peers as if they too might have some knowledge of the truth.

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