Harvard Pledge Values ‘Kindness’ Over Learning

Bloomberg View , September 14, 2011

When the members of the class of 2015 arrived at Harvard College this fall, they encountered a novel bit of moral education. Their dorm proctors -- the grad students who live with freshmen to provide guidance and enforce discipline -- invited each student to sign a pledge developed by the Freshman Dean’s Office. It reads, in full:

“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 par with intellectual attainment.”

The original plan was to post the pledge in each dorm entryway, along with the names and signatures of the students living there. Although signing was supposed to be voluntary, any dissent would have been obvious.

The posting constituted “an act of public shaming,” Harry R. Lewis, a computer science professor and former dean of Harvard College, wrote in a blog post condemning the pledge. Some students signed because they felt they had to -- a completely predictable, yet somehow unforeseen, result that Tom Dingman, the dean of freshmen, says is “against the spirit of the pledge.” The signatures will no longer be posted.

Yet what the Harvard Crimson dubs the “freshman kindness pledge” remains in place. The vast majority of freshmen, and the college itself, have formally declared that “the exercise of kindness” is “on par with intellectual attainment.” Both parts of that equation are odd, and they are odd in ways that suggest something has gone awry at Harvard.

That problem isn’t, as some might imagine, a kindness deficit. Don’t confuse the real-world Harvard with the one in the movies. “As best I can tell, it’s a perfectly civil, polite, kind, cooperative student body,” says Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychology professor and popular author. He says he found the pledge “bizarre.”

Rajiv Tarigopula, a sophomore who supported the pledge in a Crimson op-ed article, wrote me in an e-mail that “the overwhelming majority of interpersonal interactions I have had with my classmates, peers, and friends here at Harvard have been very friendly, kind, and genuine, and I’ve come away from them with a positive feeling.” He added: “I don’t think there exists a kindness deficit at all.”

Harvard surely has its jerks, but most students aren’t especially unkind -- at least to each other.

There have, however, been what Dingman vaguely describes as “instances where the janitorial staff and the staff in the dining hall have been treated with disrespect.” Since at least a few students don’t instinctively regard the staff as social equals worthy of basic courtesy and professional respect, everyone now gets a reminder not to abuse the help.

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.”

A humanities professor says, “You can’t get them to argue easily. They’re wary of that. They know the game that you’re playing with them, whereas 20 years ago they loved to play the game.” Instead of lively byplay driven by engagement with ideas, this professor says, the students have an unwritten code of: “If you give me space to impress the teacher, I’ll give you space to impress the teacher.”

There are exceptions, of course. N. Gregory Mankiw, the economics professor and former chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, reports lively discussions in his freshman seminars, where students read popular works such as Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom,” and Paul Krugman’s “The Return of Depression Economics,” as well as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s “Nudge.”

But Mankiw carefully selects his students for passionate interest and political diversity -- about 200 freshmen apply for 15 slots -- and most of the books relate to current debates. Disagreeing over political values is different from poking holes in a classmate’s arguments purely for logic’s sake. The former affirms your political identity and that of your opponent. The latter could embarrass your classmate. Besides, Mankiw’s course is pass-fail. Class discussions won’t hurt anyone’s transcript.

Pledge supporters hope that the kindness clause will foster the type of civil discussion that happens in Mankiw’s classroom. “Look at the discourse around the political arena,” says Dingman, explaining the motivations behind the pledge. “It certainly isn’t what we’d hope for.”

True, our public discussions could surely benefit from more fair-minded Greg Mankiws (regardless of political persuasion) and fewer vicious Paul Krugmans (ditto). But a kindness pledge won’t get us there. And the anti-criticism norm that prevails in other Harvard classrooms points to the problem of equating kindness with civility or fairness.

Kindness isn’t a public or intellectual virtue, but a personal one. It is a form of love. Kindness seeks, above all, to avoid hurt. Criticism -- even objective, impersonal, well-intended, constructive criticism -- isn’t kind. Criticism hurts people’s feelings, and it hurts most when the recipient realizes it’s accurate. Treating “kindness” as the way to civil discourse doesn’t show students how to argue with accuracy and respect. It teaches them instead to neither give criticism nor tolerate it.

And that brings us to the second half of the pledge equation: intellectual attainment. Not inquiry or excellence, but “attainment.” What a strange, and revealing, choice of words.

Consider a common argument in favor of the pledge. It starts with a survey last spring in which then-freshmen were asked to indicate how they believed Harvard ranked various values, and then to do the same ranking for themselves. Students deemed “success” as Harvard’s highest value while ranking “compassion” low for the university. By contrast, they put compassion high on their personal lists, ranking it fourth behind hard work, honesty and respect.

In an editorial, the Crimson called the divergent ranking of compassion “completely unacceptable” and declared the survey “one more piece of evidence that the College needs to provide a stronger moral education.” Despite commencement rhetoric about promoting understanding and serving society, the editorial board lamented, “The fact is that students receive more reminders to turn in their study cards” for course registration “than they do to be nice.”

Course registration versus niceness; success versus compassion; “attainment” versus kindness. Something is missing from all these dichotomies, and that something is the life of the mind.

Where in the list of ranked values are curiosity, discovery, reason, inquiry, skepticism or truth? (Were these values even options?) Where is critical thinking? No wonder the pledge talks about “attainment.” Attainment equals study cards and good grades -- a transcript to enable the student to move on to the next stage. Attainment isn’t learning, questioning or criticizing. It’s getting your ticket punched.

Harvard is the strongest brand in American higher education, and its identity is clear. As its students recognize, Harvard represents success. But, it seems, Harvard feels guilty about that identity and wishes it could instead (or also) represent “compassion.” These two qualities have a lot in common. They both depend on other people, either to validate success or serve as objects of compassion. And neither is intellectual.