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Protest Against Mansfield Was Intellectually Hollow



I was distressed to note that several of our colleagues at the College can find no better way to express their disagreement with the views of Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield '53 on affirmative action than to hold disruptive and hollow protests ("Students Gather to Protest Views of Mansfield," News, April 26, 1996). I often disagree with Mr. Mansfield's views on contemporary social and political issues, but I also know that he is a distinguished scholar who is happy to discuss his opinions with interested students. Such discussion is precisely why it is valuable to have such a superb faculty; if students ignore their access to that resource and resort to demagoguery and sloganeering, why pay Harvard's high tuition?

The purpose of attending university is, in large part, to learn to hone and defend our opinions. A protest does nothing to further this end; rather, it allows both the protester and the individual being protested to rest on simple, unrefined opinions that do not adequately account for the real complexity of the situation being considered. If the protesters had been willing to match wits with Mr. Mansfield, they certainly would have left with more subtle and intelligent arguments, and they would be better able to construct nuanced arguments in the future. Mr. Mansfield even may have refined his opinions through such an encounter.

None of this is to say that the protesters should have kept silent, or even that they should have limited their criticism to discussing the issue with Mr. Mansfield. He wrote an opinion piece ("A Poor Defense of Diversity," Guest Commentary, April 8, 1996), and I am certain that The Crimson would have welcomed a retort. In such an article, the argument of the protesters could be developed beyond slogans and adhominem attacks. Many of us would have been more impressed, more sympathetic and more likely to be convinced if they had answered his arguments, just as he answered President Rudenstine's report.

Instead, they violated the academic integrity of the classroom, distracting other students from the important work at hand. I had hoped that the immaturity of this approach had already been amply demonstrated. Not only does such a protest overlook the more productive approach of discussion and learning, it also deprives other students of the opportunity to give their attention to a lecture.

If the protesters' disregard for the value of intelligent discussion was implicit in their actions, it was made explicit--and frightening--by the statement of Jason B. Phillips '99 that "Harvard needs to watch its professors, watch what they say." This, of course, would fly in the face of our tradition of academic tenure, a tradition that guarantees freedom of expression and thought within academia's walls. If this tradition is abandoned and the University punishes professors on the basis of their opinions or scholarship, the market place of ideas upon which democracy rests would be severely damaged. Mr. Phillips might well be simply ignored were it not for the fact that his view reflects the contemptuousness of opposing viewpoints inherent in the protest.

At the very least, debating Mr. Mansfield on the issues either in person or on the pages of the campus press would have proven the protesters capable of formulating opinions beyond "we agree" and "we despise." I do not believe that civil and intelligent discourse is too much to ask of Harvard's student body. --Jarrett N. Blanc '97

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