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Students Should Shut Up

By David B. Lat

Let's conduct a thought experiment. What would life at Harvard be like if students were in control?

Things would be radically different. In terms of academics, courses on Plato, Aristotle and other "dead white males" would be replaced by studies of the ocuvre of Rigoberta Menchu. In residential life, we would have houses devoted to every possible ethnicity and sexual orientation. The dining halls would serve junk food instead of their nominally healthy offerings. (I admit that this last example may actually undermine my argument.)

What the experiment should tell us is that many times students simply don't know what is good for them. If the nightmarish scenario I've just painted does not convince you that we should have very little voice in our own affairs, allow me to lay out a few more arguments in favor of this position.

We have heard quite a bit about "empowerment" and "making the student voice heard" in the past few weeks. But on issues from public service to ethnic studies, students don't just want to be heard--they want to be obeyed. They want their input to be binding on administrators. This prospect is quite funny, almost as amusing as last Thursday's moronic rally for more student voice. The rally was a concrete demonstration of what ridiculous results we get when students try to recapture the spirit of '60s activism.

In looking at the relationship between students and the administration, students say that they should make important decisions because they're the ones who will be affected by the outcome of those decisions. They let loose their shrill and infantile cry: "We're the ones who have to live with these choices!"

This whiny argument may sound compelling at first, but it makes a major omission. It fails to distinguish between different possible governing frameworks. It runs on the assumption that this University runs along democratic lines.

In a democracy, the power of the authorities springs from the consent of the governed. Citizens in such a society should be consulted on important issuse, and their opinions should carry real weight. But Harvard is not a democracy.

Harvard administrators are not democratically elected officials required to act upon constituent wishes. Instead, we should think of administrators as acting in loco parentis over us. They make the types of decisions that parents make for children who are simply too young and too inexperienced to make wise choices.

In coming to Harvard, we have tacitly consented to this governing structure. If you wanted to attend a college where you would have a major voice in making decisions, you have come to the wrong place. Start filling out those transfer applications.

In arguing for the authority of the administration, I do not mean to imply that the administration is infallible. They allow University Health Services to fund abortions, for example. Conservatives have criticized the administration for subsidizing murder. But conservatives have never gone as far as their liberal classmates. They have never had the gall to challenge the very structure of the decision-making process in a university community.

We should stop and think about what it means to be a student and what it means to be an administrator. This may seem fairly obvious, but I feel obligated to remind the Harvard community that the job of administrators is to administer Harvard's academic program, to make the tough decisions that affect our lives. The job of students, by contrast, is to study.

And so I would like to call upon my classmates to put down their protest signs and pick up their school-books. If you want to ruin your own lives and educations, fine. But please stay well away from the lives of those of us who are self-aware and humble enough to recognize the limits of our abilities.

David B. Lat's column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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