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INSOLUBLE PROBLEM

The Mail

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

To the Editors of the CRIMSON:

Under present circumstances it is impossible to establish guidelines to distinguish acceptable from unacceptable political conduct within the university in a way that will appear just and equitable to the interested parties. The significant dividing line is not between faculty and students. Instead, the situation is one where those opposed to the war, and now even more opposed to those aspects of American society they hold responsible for the war, feel a moral compulsion to act in ways that others regard as merely criminal. Faculty and students fall on both sides of this moral and political dividing line, though not of course in equal numbers. A rule that prohibits the resort to force and violence on the university campus cannot possibly satisfy the moral revolutionaries. They would point out at once that other members of the university remain perfectly free to participate in legally accepted violence by giving advice to the Pentagon. Any rule that entailed automatic dismissal or severance for disruptive protest is bound to have unequal political consequences. For the moral revolutionaries and those who sympathize with them this inequity is likely to seem intolerable.

On the other hand, it is equally true that a university cannot function when angry minorities repeatedly resort to coercive tactics. That is the case even without backlash from the outside, which if course aggravates the situation. To put the point offensively, serious and sustained intellectual work is incompatible with too militant a search for immediate social justice. So much the worse for the universities, some might say. Since, in the real world, efforts by militant moral vanguards to impose a new moral code on an unwilling population have generally led to massive cruelty, there are stronger grounds than mere academic self-interest for rejecting the use of coercion. Nor is it clear that the use of force against deans and professors accomplishes very much toward the reduction of oppressive violence in the larger society. Be that as it may, it is clear that at the level of principle, universities face an insoluble problem: in order to function with even a minimum of critical independence they have to prohibit the resort to coervice tactics, and they cannot enforce the prohibition strictly without injustice toward a significant and valuable minority of their own members.

Fortunately or unfortunately, human beings, perhaps especially human beings in universities, do not live together in strict accord with general principles. Instead they work out, from case to case, a set of often unspoken agreements and working rules to govern their own behavior and settle conflicts. This process began at Harvard as early as the McNamara episode. Whether it can continue is uncertain because the moral conflict is indeed an intense one. There are, I suggest, two closely related prerequisites for any accommodation that may still make possible serious intellectual work. One would be a shift in emphasis among the moral revolutionaries toward building a firm and substantial basis of popular support around demands whose legitimacy would be widely acknowledged, with a turn to more militant tactics only when they had been unable to get a hearing for such demands. The other condition would be a widening by the university authorities of their conception of acceptable political behavior to include, on a de facto basis, limited interruptions of normal university routines. Such interruptions would have to be brief and stop well short of violence and the threat of violence, both of which would presumably remain subject to severe sanctions. It is obviously impossible to predict that such an accommodation would work, or even that there would be a serious effort to find one and make it work. All that it is possible to assert with some confidence is that without tacit concessions and explorations by both sides, Harvard and other universities will indeed cease to be places where one can learn or teach anything beyond whatever simple techniques the prevailing political orthodoxy requires. Barrington Moore, Jr.   Lecturer on Sociology

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