News

Harvard Law School Makes Online Zero-L Course Free for All U.S. Law Schools Due to Coronavirus

News

For Kennedy School Fellows, Epstein-Linked Donors Present a Moral Dilemma

News

Tenants Grapple with High Rents and Local Turnover at Asana-Owned Properties

News

In April, Theft Surged as Cambridge Residents Stayed at Home

News

The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

What We Truly Believe

By Parker R. Conrad and Kirsten G. Studlien, Crimson Staff Writerss

Harvard, Richard M. Nixon liked to say, was "the Kremlin on the Charles."

But the reputation that gave the University its moniker has changed. Today, Harvard students, who stormed University Hall in 1969 to protest the presence of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) on campus, overwhelmingly support bringing the organization back, despite its exclusion of gay men and lesbians.

Some students point to small ideological defections as indicative of a larger erosion of liberal principles on campus.

But appearances can be deceiving.

Fully half of students polled in a recent Crimson survey of 325 undergraduates identified themselves as liberal. A third said they were moderate and only a sixth, self-identified themselves conservative.

Whatever has changed at Harvard, it is still far more liberal than the U.S. population at large.

But there are signs that Harvard sometimes eschew the liberal ideology for practical concerns.

There is substantial disagreement about issues that were once liberal mainstays--almost a third of students polled supported banning race-based affirmative action, far more than the number of students who described themselves as conservative. Less than half support race-based preferences. Only 43 percent of students polled agreed that the death penalty should be banned.

Yet these particular issues, say scholars of politics and civic life, have always been among the least tightly held tenets of liberalism--and do not indicate an aversion to progressive principles.

"Misgivings about racial preferences extend beyond conservatives," says Ramesh A. Ponnuru, a senior editor at the National Review, a conservative opinion magazine. He cited recent initiatives to curtail affirmative action in California and Washington that have received support among Democrats.

Overall, while Harvard students may not be as liberal as they once were, students remain staunch supporters of much of the liberal rubric.

As a student body, we are confident in government's ability to affect change in society--only 21 percent of students polled disagree that government is an effective body for solving social problems, and students overwhelmingly disagree with the notion that big government is a threat to our country's future.

In contrast, national politicians of every ilk have recently distanced themselves from ideas of expansive government with broad social mandates.

"There's a reason that Bill Clinton felt it necessary to say 'the era of big government is over,'" Ponnuru says.

Students overwhelmingly support raising spending for education, but barely reach a consensus to raise taxes on the rich--a full 29 percent oppose taxing the rich and another 24 percent have mixed opinions on the issue.

While there are intimations of political moderation on Harvard's campus, Harvard students, for better or for worse, remain well to the left of the general population.

Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom says Harvard students are far more accepting of homosexuality than the American public. Eighty percent of students polled agreed that gays should be allowed to marry. Thernstrom says only 11 percent of the Americans feel the same way.

In contrast, students strongly support bringing ROTC back to campus. Currently, Harvard students wishing to enroll in ROTC must do so at MIT, since the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" regulation violates Harvard's anti-discrimination policies.

Though pleased at the support for gay marriage, some gay students said they were puzzled at the contradictory results.

"It's unfortunate that students at Harvard would take such an enlightened position on something which they have very little control, but not on a stance which they have very strong control," says David B. Orr '01.

But Army ROTC Cadet Gabriel A. Mendel '02 says he is pleased with the respondents' reaction. While he supports gay rights--including gay marriage--he says keeping ROTC off campus will only hurt the students enrolled in the program who are powerless to affect military policy.

"I don't understand how it's going to make a difference to make 10 or 15 Harvard students travel to MIT every weekend," he says.

Always Upper Crust

Harvard's left-of-center politics surprise no one.

"We know from general population surveys that people who are better educated are more likely to be liberal, as are people who are from more privileged backgrounds," says Robert Wuthnow, who directs the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton.

But Harvard students have not always been so liberal--up until the 1960s, Harvard was, by reputation, conservative.

A graduation poll given to the class of 1956 showed that the majority of students were Republican--mostly conservative or libertarian.

According to Thernstrom, Harvard undergraduates supported Republican candidates Herbert C. Hoover and Alfred M. Landon over Franklin D. Roosevelt '04 in the 1932 and 1936 presidential elections, respectively, even though Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal and a former Crimson president, enjoyed widespread support from the U.S. population at large.

Thernstrom says that despite the change in political allegiances, Harvard's views on economic and social issues have always reflected the opinions of the upper-middle class Northeastern establishment.

"The Harvard student body has always reflected elite opinion in the U.S., not the opinion of the general public," he says. "Back in the old days, the elite was solidly conservative."

The elite is now more liberal.

One presidential candidate, former Senator Bill Bradley, has draped his campaign in the language of the political left.

A majority of Harvard students polled chose Bradley for president. The next largest proportion had no opinion on the issue, and Vice President Al Gore '69 came in second.

Claudia Winkler, the managing editor of the influential conservative publication the Weekly Standard, says that though many students may hold what they consider to be strong political beliefs, these beliefs are not always concurrent with their proclaimed party alignment.

This, she says, is purely a function of the fact that students have not had the time or the education to form all of their beliefs concretely.

"The respondents in this survey are young, and some of their opinions are not completely formed and may even be contradictory," Winkler says. "That will change with the more that they study and learn about politics."

Despite the campus's proclivities for the left, most Harvard students say they don't think the campus is too liberal, which Ponnuru finds predictable.

"It's self-confirming in a way," he said. "Harvard students are a breed apart," he says with a hint of mockery.

That Old Time Religion?

Harvard students are more faithful than they once were.

Today, 52 percent of students polled described themselves as religious, and 60 percent agreed that God exists.

"I've been teaching at Harvard for 30 years, and the increase in the number of students who are religious is dramatic," said Harvey Cox, Thomas Professor of Divinity at the Harvard Divinity School.

. "When I first came here, [religion] was something you didn't speak of in polite company," he says.

But students are far less faithful than the population outside Harvard Yard.

Wuthnow, the Princeton social scientist, says that only 5 percent of the public say they don't believe in God, compared with 16 percent of non-believers at Harvard.

According to Wuthnow, only a fifth of U.S. citizens say they are not religious.

Even more telling is the extent to which a student's religious beliefs are

likely to filter into their daily lives.

Although students favor a progressive, inclusive theology that is attuned to the social conditions of the present, many say they distrust overt displays of conservative religion.

"It's the after-affects of an entire shift in the culture towards individualism against deferentialism and authority and tradition," says Ponnuru.

Despite the high percentage of students who profess religious faith, only 34 percent of students polled opposed the legalization of marijuana. Four-fifths favor legalizing gay marriage.

"Harvard students are not fundamentalist. They think for themselves," says Wuthnow. "Some of them identify with more liberal wings of their particular faith."

While Harvard students assume the trappings of religious belief, they say their beliefs do not manifest themselves on a regular basis.

"People incorporating their faith into their everyday lives and conversations and actions is pretty rare," says Neil W. Holzapfel '00, who is on the leadership team for the

evangelical student group, Christian Impact.

In last year's Undergraduate Council elections, the unsuccessful

presidential bid by T. Christopher King '01 drew national media attention when he alleged that his public religious beliefs scared away voters.

"It's very difficult to possess any religious conviction here and not be misunderstood," King says.

Ponnuru says that Harvard students' discomfort with religious matters is part of a larger national trend away from specific religious conviction and towards a more general notion of spirituality.

"Recently...religious enthusiasm has become more important than doctrine," he says.

Holzapfel says he feels that wariness towards religion is inevitable at Harvard because universities are chartered to question and doubt.

"I think that it's partly a result of our society that we've been raised in, and partly Harvard, which teaches us we should push off things that limit our intellectual capacities," he says.

Do We Want Uncle Sam?

While Harvard students have shown themselves willing to work in their communities and with the impoverished, they are hesitant to commit to serving their nation.

Only 47 percent of students surveyed agreed that serving their nation was an important priority in their life.

William B. Nash, a retired Army major general who is the now the director of civilian-military relations at the National Democratic Institute, a Washington D.C.-based public policy center, said the results concerned him. Nash said the survey numbers may indicate that Harvard students are hesitant to take personal responsibility for the safety and security of their nation.

"Whether they're a doctor or lawyer or businessman, serving the nation in some capacity is an important part of being citizen and is the personal tax on the blessings of liberty," he said.

In the past, Harvard students were far more likely to serve in the military. In a 1956 survey of graduating seniors at Harvard, a full 25 percent of respondents said they thought military service would be a valuable and rewarding experience.

Ponnuru says that in the past, military service was as ubiquitous for American males coming out of elite schools as a career in business is today.

"It was a conversation opener to ask 'Where did you serve?' much the way we now ask 'What do you do?," he says.

The majority of Harvard students say they would be willing to serve in the military, but only if they agreed with the cause. Only 20 percent said they would risk their lives for their country regardless of the cause.

It's a trend that Nash and others find disturbing.

Nash argued that it is up to the nation at large, and its elected leaders, to say whether a war is worth fighting, and not the individual soldiers involved in the battle.

"People that serve in the military don't get to make that choice. They serve the democratically elected leadership of the nation," he said. "It's a concept that folks ought to think about."

Thernstrom said he thought Harvard student's unwillingness to serve unless they were personally committed to the cause was a result of a perceived "elite status" among Harvard students.

"There is a sense of entitlement and privilege that comes through," he said. "[In the past,] a more traditional working-class kid would have thought 'if my country calls me I will go.'"

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags