I looked forward this summer to attending Government 1091 in the fall, to watching George Will and two of Harvard's best professors debate and discuss our intellectual traditions. Last Friday's class met my expectations, but not without disruption. Before the professors could begin, we were first forced to sit through the embarrassing interference of 15 or 20 students.
I hesitate to refer to them as "protesters." The term has a respectable legacy at Harvard, recalling activists who risked their own safety in attempting to bring about positive change. The name would be wrongly applied here because it implies that the group had an injustice to tackle, a wrong to right.
But they didn't. Apparently, the students abandoned any rational purpose in order to indulge in their fun little games and embarrass themselves in the process. In a class devoted to debating liberal and conservative opinions in American political thought, the "protest" was more remarkable for its anti-intellectualism than its contribution to any real social cause.
The protesters were not interested in listening to Will's penetrating critique of the deficiencies of liberalism. Indeed, they did not care to listen to Professor of Government Michael J. Sandel's indictment of conservatism either. Instead, they came to challenge the right of students to listen to viewpoints different from those of these "protesters."
The students barged in with their witty signs in facetious support of Mansfield's supposedly bigoted opinions. They offered Mansfield the "David Duke Award" and Will the "Heinrich Himmler Award," revealing their stupidity to all present. Yeah, Heinrich Himmler. That's pretty darn funny. I guess Will's conservatism has a lot in common with that of the Nazi murderer. And Mansfield has offended most of the liberal constituencies at Harvard. I guess he must be a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Pretty funny.
Mansfield has certainly made his share of controversial statements in the past few years. Indeed, some of them, such as his strange theory linking grade inflation with affirmative action, are inflammatory to the point of irresponsibility. The professor may not have distinguished himself by that remark, but it hardly makes him a racist.
Nor does it change the fact that in the classroom Mansfield is a great professor. The group's claim that Mansfield has offered Harvard little more than his private "family values" in his 37 years at Harvard is just ignorant. Anyone who has taken any of his political theory courses would recognize his purpose is not to indoctrinate his students, but to share his considerable understanding of some of the greatest thinkers of all time.
None of this mattered to the "protesters," who preferred to rage against Mansfield and include Will in this bizarre vendetta. What exactly was the point they were trying to make in protesting Will, a respected columnist and man of integrity? While conservative, Will has the intellectual honesty to attack sacred cows on both sides. As he showed on Friday, he can carry his weight in the classrooms as well.
Apparently, the purpose of the protest was to argue that those who profess views different from their own, those who do not support all of the "lifestyles" and "values" of the sixties, those who believe there are higher modes in life than pursuit of instant gratification, have no place here.
These students want professors who will tell them what they want to hear, to satisfy their own shallow opinions, rather than to challenge them and force them to defend their views.
The "protesters" missed the entire point of the class, which revealed in its first lecture that neither side in the American debate has a monopoly on justice. Indeed, the exchange between Will and Sandel showed the assembled students that you will always learn more from the challenges of your rivals than from the amens of your friends.
Mercifully, the protest was short. After five minutes of raving, the protesters left. On the way out, one of them shouted, "Enjoy the class!"
Thank you, I will. Hopefully without having to endure any more of your infantile demonstrations again.
Steven A. Engel's column appears on alternate Wednesdays.