The Harvey Mansfield Story
Harvard’s Political Philosopher
Seated at Grafton Street Pub & Grill with a child-size glass of Guinness in hand, Professor Harvey Claflin Mansfield ’53, Harvard’s soft-spoken firebrand, has no intention of upturning the reputation he has earned during the nearly five decades he has spent teaching at his alma mater.
Even today, within a month of his eightieth birthday, Mansfield still relishes the battles he has fought over the years. Facing off against feminists, liberals, the new left, any enforcer of the politically correct, easy graders, and fresh young minds, Mansfield hasn’t pulled any punches. He has been a vigorous opponent of the Ivory Tower’s conventional wisdom. He’s against race and gender-based affirmative action. He categorically opposes gender studies departments. He puts the Constitution on a pedestal. He thinks women, in general, should be expected to earn less than men. He wrote a book entitled “Manliness,” a defense of traditional gender roles. In 2008, he hosted “The Conference the Radcliffe Institute Didn’t Want to Host.” He’s an unyielding critic of grade inflation, earning the moniker Harvey “C-minus” Mansfield. He even opposed Harvard’s course evaluation tool.
You could call him a polemic. But then you might be missing the point.
“Sometimes I think if Harvard was just as conservative as it is liberal now, I wouldn’t be a conservative,” Mansfield reflects, eating a BLT with avocado and picking at greens instead of French fries—even the great arbiter of manliness must bow to the requirements of old age.
Harvey Mansfield entertaining the thought that he could be himself without being a conservative—this idea seems pretty far from any regular conception of the Mansfieldian Platonic ideal. The words “I wouldn’t be a conservative” come from the same person who minutes later labels himself a “conservative Republican with the emphasis on Republican rather than conservative—because I like to win.”
The passing mention is not a half-hearted apology for decades spent as Harvard’s head heretic. He is not apologizing. In fact, Harvey Mansfield is first and foremost a philosopher—a man who has spent his career thinking about big ideas, a man who only half-jokingly lists John Rawls among his chief rivals. The idea of a Mansfield without conservative values is, like everything he touches, more complicated than it seems—or maybe more complicated than he likes to let on. Perhaps after spending a lifetime studying Nietzsche and Machiavelli, he understands the joy of the aphorism, of the provocative remark.
“I believe that Harvey is a provocateur, but I do not believe that Harvey is a superficial provocateur or an insincere one,” says Sharon R. Krause, a left-leaning political science professor at Brown University and a former Harvard government department Ph.D. student advised and mentored by Mansfield. “I believe that the position he defends, he believes he has good grounds for. But, he sees the limits of beliefs or convictions—even convictions that he believes are sound.”
Mansfield might be a man driven by the primacy of his conservative values, but maybe it is the confrontation itself that has kept him fighting.
Mansfield was born March 21, 1932, in New Haven, Conn. He arrived at Harvard—the son of Harvey C. Mansfield Sr., a government professor at Columbia—in 1949. Almost without intention, but with plenty of passion, Mansfield immersed himself in the study of government—describing himself as a “grind.” As Mansfield, who went to a public high school, says he was a member of Harvard’s first class to have equal numbers of men from prep schools and public schools, he revels in his own brand of diversity.
After he graduated, he spent one year in England on a Fulbright scholarship and then two years as an enlisted man in the Army.
He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in government in 1961, taught at Berkeley for a couple of years, and then returned to Harvard as a lecturer. In 1969, he was appointed a full professor; he chaired the government department from 1973 to 1976. Today, he is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government.
During his time as an undergraduate, Mansfield was not yet a neo-conservative; he was a liberal. In a straw poll in the 1950s, he even voted for Adlai Stevenson.
Then, in the late 1950s, Mansfield recalls—employing a phrase coined by the neo-conservative thinker Irving Kristol—getting “mugged by reality.” His transformation came in two parts. First, Mansfield discovered Leo Strauss, a Jewish-German political philosopher who has had a sustained impact on Mansfield’s scholarship and worldview. Strauss’ views on history and the classics naturally translated into a conservative school of thought, Mansfield says. Second, the protests that erupted in America and on Harvard’s campus during the Vietnam War shaped his political perspective forever.
Paul A. Cantor ’66, an English professor at the University of Virginia who participated in a reading group led by Mansfield during his time at Harvard, says, “When you had these various forms of student protest and politics suddenly intruding on academics, you suddenly had to take political positions because the students were forcing you to. Those events I wouldn’t say politicized him as a teacher, but they made it necessary to make certain political positions.” Cantor recalls, “Students would barge into your class and try to stop you from teaching.”