Last week, The Crimson reported that this year’s freshmen were asked to sign a pledge upholding certain moral values Harvard College hopes to instill in its students. This pledge has since been referred to as the “Freshman Values Pledge” and has been a source of much campus discourse. On Tuesday, Pforzheimer House Co-Masters Erika L. Christakis ’86 and Nicholas A. Christakis opined on the freshman pledge, rightly noting that our strength as a world-class university depends on our ability to embrace the reality that “we live in an increasingly interconnected world and depend on one another.”
The Freshman Values Pledge has been in development since last spring, and was a central component of a broader Moral Development Initiative that came out of the Freshman Dean’s Office. Even if the perception that Harvard students are becoming increasingly inconsiderate to their peers is incorrect, there is certainly no harm done by exposing new members of the Harvard community to the values for which the College and the greater University stand. During their first week in college, freshmen are given the opportunity to sign on to a pledge which, in the end, really only says that they will value kindness and integrity just as much as they value their academics. Anybody who takes issue with this should perhaps examine how much they value genuine kindness and positive social interactions in their day-to-day lives before dismissing the pledge’s intent.
In dining hall conversations over the last week, I have heard some contend that the pledge is unacceptable because Harvard is first and foremost an academic institution, and should not waste its time and resources dealing with the morality of its students. This claim is fundamentally flawed. Those who come to Harvard for a purely academic education are not in the right place. Presidents of Harvard have delivered sermons on the necessity of morality in a Harvard education, and morality has been an important aspect of Harvard education for years. In the 1962 Baccalaureate Service, for instance, President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 asserted that “[character], discipline, and civic duty are not things which can be driven into a person from the outside…such qualities may grow in a person in a favorable environment if the heart set upon them.” The Graduate School of Education has its Civic and Moral Education Initiative; and the College’s Ethical Reasoning General Education requirement used to be known as “Moral Reasoning.”
Other students have griped that morality is relative, and at an international school with students from different backgrounds, prescribing one version of morality is inappropriate. This criticism is unsound as well. The pledge is general enough that one could easily envision a system in which an honor system’s specific aspects were debated amongst current students each year and a consensus could be organically formed.
In the middle of Wigglesworth Hall on the Massachusetts Avenue side of Harvard Yard stands Dexter Gate, erected in 1890 and a favorite landmark of students and tourists alike. According to its engraved maxim, Harvard students are commanded to “Enter to Grow in Wisdom,” and “Depart to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind.” Construing the freshman values pledge issue as one borne of a useless administrative desire to establish dictatorial rule over the freshman class is not the right approach. Instead, Harvard has taken a step in the right direction to fulfill its obligations to us as students. In our formative years, we read Locke, debate questions of normative economics, write papers in comparative governance, and slave away finishing problem sets in the applied sciences. But not describing in words the ideal community–President Pusey’s “favorable environment”–in which all this should take place leaves Dexter Gate’s noble charge sadly unfulfilled. By establishing the ground rules for incoming freshmen before Convocation, we enable a better community. If these specific moral values are experientially reinforced throughout our time at Harvard, we are given a true academic and social education. If, after Commencement, we leave the Yard with integrity, respect, and—yes—kindness engrained into our minds and hearts, we are better citizens of the world and Harvard will have done its job.
Perhaps this year’s pledge is the beginning of a larger movement towards instituting a larger honor system on Harvard’s campus. If the recent debate on this pledge builds momentum for such a reform, then it will have been a success. A system that can stand the test of time and one day be spoken of with such reverence as is given honor codes of schools like Haverford, Princeton, and West Point is not one developed in one fell administrative swoop. Only with student input and acceptance will Harvard truly respect a declaration of values; something like this cannot be top-down. Instead, students and administrators need to work together to build a strong culture around an honor system for people to incorporate it into their existing value set. This is our university. Let’s seize this moment and invest our energies now into making this possible, to enable future generations to serve better their country and their kind.
Rajiv Tarigopula ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.