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Pointing Us Nowhere

Decline and Fall

By Ross G. Douthat

One of the fringe benefits of being the president of a major university, one supposes, is that one no longer has any difficulty getting published. So it is that just before he turned over the reins of Harvard University to Larry Summers, Neil Rudenstine brought out a collection of speeches and essays entitled Pointing Our Thoughts: Reflections on Harvard and Higher Education.

The publisher, of course, is Harvard University Press, and they have outdone themselves in binding and printing Rudenstine’s volume, combining a tasteful cover image of Memorial Hall with a thick, sweet-smelling paper and a special font (“Golden Cockerel,” for the curious) that offers, according to a note at the end of the volume, a “face of notable heft, with a dense color on the page and sharp serifs reminiscent of the carver’s chisel.” The intended effect, obviously, is one of words hewn in granite, with Rudenstine as a 21st century Moses, handing down a new set of commandments—although perhaps we should call them “suggestions,” instead, since our former president was above all a defender of intellectual diversity.

The book would look handsome on a coffee table or a bookshelf—and that is, alas, exactly where it belongs, unread and perhaps even unopened. Listening to Rudenstine speak publicly was always a painful experience; with his oddly halting delivery, he often seemed like he was desperately fighting off a speech impediment. But one always held out a faint hope that the words themselves were packed with meaning, obscured by Rudenstine’s colorless manner of speech but there nonetheless and only waiting for a diligent critic, a Boswell to Rudenstine’s Samuel Johnson, to reveal the depths of our president’s wisdom.

Alas, in reading over through the neatly printed sentences and paragraphs, one realizes the truth: for Neil Rudenstine’s speeches, as for Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, there is no there there. Our former president speaks in platitudes; he borrows other men’s insights to fill the spaces in his speeches where insight and originality ought to find a home. “All of us recognize that we are now actors in a drama that has become global in nature,” he tells one audience; another is informed that the “enlarged range of different human and intellectual contacts and perspectives increases the richness of interchange at every level and at every turn.”

These would be forgivable generalities if Rudenstine offered specifics to accompany them. But one searches the book in vain.

One searches in vain, too, for moral seriousness—for originality of thought—for a willingness to tackle controversies of any stripe. Rudenstine’s notion of taking a controversial stand seems to be supporting the idea of “diversity” in higher education by defending affirmative action. His idea of originality and moral seriousness seems to be quoting literary voices, drawing upon authors whose ability to communicate dwarfs his own, and using them to banal and platitudinous ends.

In the end, after leafing through the 377 pages—printed, we are informed, on “Mohawk Superfine Paper”—one can only conclude that what was suspected sitting through Rudenstine’s brain-aching addresses was actually the truth. Pointing Our Thoughts will teach future generations only that in 10 eminently forgettable years, Neil Rudenstine used the bully pulpit bequeathed by Eliot, Conant and Pusey only when it came time to pass the collection plate. This, in turn, meant that from the perspective of the undergraduate population, which knew him only as a stooped and unassuming figure glimpsed occasionally between Mass Hall and the Faculty Club—and from the vantage point of the country at large, to whom he never addressed a single memorable message—Rudenstine’s was the amazing disappearing Harvard presidency.

This unfortunate fact poses a serious challenge for Summers. Not only must he tackle all the concrete challenges of 21st century Harvard, he must also rescue the Harvard president’s role as University spokesperson from the irrelevance to which Rudenstine consigned it.

With this task, Summers has made a fine start. It is not that he is a far better speaker than Rudenstine; Summers, alas, still sounds more like the Treasury Secretary that he was than the University president he has become. But the content of his speeches marks a sharp departure from Rudenstine’s cautious truisms.

Admittedly, this shift has been aided in no small measure by the events of Sept. 11, which have made America safe for serious rhetoric for the first time, perhaps, since the close of the Cold War. But still, it is to his credit that in a series of speeches, Summers has done something that the verbally-challenged Rudenstine never did—namely, discuss the moral responsibility that the University bears to the United States, which is (according to Summers) similar to those borne by any American citizen. In the cloistered and reflexively anti-American world of academe, these are radical and refreshing words indeed.

Equally refreshing is Summers’s emphasis on the necessity for Harvard to support the military. While these statements have not yet been accompanied by any serious effort to end the University’s wrongheaded, identity-politics-driven anti-ROTC policy, it is heartening, to say the least, to hear our president stressing Harvard’s commitment to back “those who fight and are prepared to die” for this country.

Only once, in all his collected speeches, does Rudenstine touch seriously on such issues—and then it is only to dispense bromides about Harvard being “indigenously American but simultaneously global.” The difference between this call and Summers’s recent declaration that “of all the kinds of public service, there is a special nobility, a special grace to those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for our country” tells us much about the change that our country has undergone in the last month. But it also tells us much that is good, and worthy giving thanks for, about the difference between the rhetoric and wisdom of our old president, and of our new.

Ross G. Douthat ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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