The Trouble with Tradition

What’s always been done won’t always do

Last week, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed a momentous piece of legislation. The bill established a civilian review board to consider and rule on accusations of police misconduct. The board will act as an alternative to the police department’s internal affairs division, a body within the department that has no accountability to the citizens of St. Louis. Or at least that is how the Aldermen wanted it.

Unfortunately for the Aldermen—and those who elected them—they don’t have the final say. Their civilian review board plan will now be reviewed by a state police commission appointed by the Governor of Missouri. This board is expected to veto the review board, effectively overturning the will of St. Louis voters as expressed through their representatives. And that’s not the weirdest part. The state police commission was created to protect Missouri from the lurking threat of…wait for it…St. Louis unionists. That’s right. The people of St. Louis are about to have their will abrogated by a board set up to protect the Confederacy from rabble-rousing supporters of Abraham Lincoln. Though much has changed in the last 144 years, a large part of St. Louis’s charter can still be traced to the political situation at the outbreak of the Civil War, when its large population of anti-slavery German immigrants—the mid-19th century equivalent of today’s “dangerous radicals”—made St. Louis a significant threat to the newly seceded Confederacy.

For those of you who haven’t been reading the news, the Civil War ended a few years ago. But the question of who controls the St. Louis Police Department still hinges largely on racial concerns. The Aldermen who pushed through the civilian review board legislation were mostly black, while the governor who appoints the state police commission is a white Republican who was elected, as so many white Republicans, with very few black votes. In the post-civil rights movement era, I would like to think that no state would condone a system where a largely white electorate gets ultimate control over a police system for a large city that is nearly half black. But institutions have a funny way of sticking around long after the political conditions that gave birth to them have kicked the bucket. Missouri voters, and many St. Louis citizens, seem to have accepted this peculiar anachronism as simply the way things are.

So why should you care? Admittedly, Harvard doesn’t have anything quite like the St. Louis Police Department. But Harvard does have one thing in common with the Gateway City: both Harvard and St. Louis love tradition. St. Louis expresses its love for tradition by continuing with political institutions and folkways long after their proper expiration date. Mired in inertia, Harvard is conservative in everything from its housing policies to its investment strategies to its student body’s simultaneous love of liberalism and objection to all things radical.

Of course, Harvard students tend to favor social change far more than the voters of Missouri. But Harvard students have two distinctive characteristics that limit their tolerance for rapid change. First, students who make it to Harvard have done pretty well with the status quo. We’re not all wealthy and upper class—though a lot of us are—but we’ve all found some way to make the system work for us. Second, we all came to the oldest and best known school in the country. Harvard, to thousands of undergrads and billions around the world, stands for a certain ancient and dignified educational tradition. I’m willing to bet that most Harvard students get a thrill when they’re told that this school has been part of the American establishment since there was one. Identity is not destiny. As students at one of the country’s wealthiest, oldest schools, we still tend to be relatively progressive. But I do believe that the privilege enjoyed by every member of the Harvard community leads to a generally subconscious acceptance of our world and a temperamental aversion to anything that might change it dramatically. This respect for tradition manifests itself in a certain strain of argument that crops up in opposition to almost any dramatic reform. Harvard students support liberal policies, but they don’t want “radical” change. This argument is now being used against co-ed housing, but it came up in the debate over a “living wage,” in the struggle for divestment from PetroChina, and in the current discussion of working conditions for Harvard contractors. In all those discussions, many students called for incremental reform pushed through institutional means instead of rapid change pushed on the University from outside. Rather than imagining a better world and working towards that goal, students seem content to be on the slightly more progressive side of the establishment, CEOs with cause bracelets.

Consciously or unconsciously, too many students seem to defer to the status quo.

The implicit assumption is that decisions made in the past deserve respect, not because they have served their purpose, but simply because they were made in the past. The problem, as illustrated by the St. Louis example, is that our predecessors sometimes got it wrong, occasionally horribly so. Past decisions were often made based on assumptions that we now recognize as idiotic in conditions that we are generally glad to have left behind.

That doesn’t mean we should build a new society on the ashes of the old. Not every innovation is better than what came before. But we as students could do a better job of freeing ourselves from the baggage of convention. If a change—whether co-ed housing, a new employment policy, or a more ethical investment strategy—will make the world (or just Harvard) a better place, we shouldn’t ask how “radical” the change is or to what extent it violates Harvard’s traditions. It’s often difficult to think creatively, to consider innovations, even radical ones, without being unduly wed to the comfort of the world as we know it. But as people who have benefited far more than most from the world as it is, we should remember to keep imagining the world as it can be. Archaic institutions, like St. Louis’s police system or any number of Harvard’s sacred cows, survive because we grant them more respect than they deserve.

Samuel M. Simon ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.