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Had the Department of Homeland Security been around eight years ago, its efforts would most likely have been devoted to rooting out the operations of Theodore Kaczynski ’62, also known as the Unabomber. Over the course of 17 years—from his first attack in 1978 to his last in 1995—Kaczynski carried out a systematic terror campaign, sending letter bombs to prominent members of higher education institutions that resulted in three deaths and 23 injuries.
Kaczynski inhabited a dual image in the public eye: some dismissed him as a paranoid schizophrenic while others hailed his writings as evidence of a brilliant, messianic anti-technology crusader. It is well known that he attended Harvard University—but absent from the mid-90s news was that Harvard may have created the Unabomber.
Such is the premise of Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of An American Terrorist by Alston S. Chase ’57, who contends that the college’s General Education Program, the precursor to today’s Core Curriculum, may have pushed Kaczynski into his bombing campaign. The Core has been long-reviled some students, but could its 1950s predecessor have moulded one of the most disaffected and violent minds in recent memory? Chase has long answered an emphatic “yes,” having initially floated his theory in a June 2000 Atlantic Monthly article before publishing this book.
Though the premise is sensational, Chase treats Kaczynski’s psyche and the college’s social and educational environment with great consideration. Kaczynski was not the marginalized loner or the intellectual lunatic as portrayed by the popular media during his 1998 trial, but rather a sensitive, multi-talented man with a highly gifted mind.
In Chase’s analysis, Kaczynski went wrong as a result of the Gen Ed curriculum, the brainchild of Harvard President James B. Conant in the 1950s. As with today’s Core, the program was devoted to educating students in a variety of academic areas, but unlike the Core, Chase argues, the Gen Ed curriculum had particularly deleterious effects.
Chase wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that lecturers were known for a rabidly “anti-technology message” and a “despairing depiction of the sinister forces that lie beneath the surface of civilization.” Kaczynski, only 16 years old when he entered Harvard, was particularly susceptible to these messages because he was exceptionally bright and extraordinarily conscientious Chase says.
But, according to Chase, Kaczynski’s violent tendencies really emerged when he was subjected to severe psychological stress by Henry A. Murray, then a professor in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations. Murray’s experiments, called the “Multiform Assessments of Personality Development Among Gifted College Men” subjected undergraduates to military style interrogation, replete with harsh blinding lights and the psychological strong-arm tactics. Human subjects including Kaczynski were mentally battered as Murray tested the limits of “human character.” Soon Kaczynski “clearly began to experience emotional distress [and] to develop his anti-technology views” and “started having fantasies about taking revenge against a society that he increasingly viewed as an evil force obsessed with imposing conformism through psychological controls.”
According to Chase, a system of intellectual despair combined with tests that bordered on torture combined to fashion the Unabomber.
If student activists ever needed a supporting document to bolster their cries for Core reform, Harvard and the Unabomber provides important material.
—Staff writer James A. Crawford can be reached at email@example.com.
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