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An Infusion of Emerson

The need for moral inquiry at the College

By Sahil K. Mahtani

Henry Stimson knew a thing or two about excellence. A graduate of Andover and Yale, he was a famed lawyer, the governor general of the Philippines, secretary of war and secretary of state, and was, by any standard, among the cream of political life in the United States. Yet four years before his death in 1950, he wrote a letter to James B. Conant ’14 that suggested something less than satisfaction:

“The young men of that time who were, like myself, seeking to find the summum bonum of life were not being led to religion by that atmosphere. I do not wish to criticize Harvard; she gave me many of my dearest friends, as well as my admirable instruction in the law, but I was a young man of 21 troubled by religious doubts which young men are troubled by in their search for the living truth of life, and I got none of that from Harvard.”

By and large, this kind of absence still remains today. And while I am not entirely partial to Stimson’s view—he suggested that Harvard should produce prophets and spiritual leaders that would satisfy “the feeling of religious need [that] is abroad in our people today”—what Stimson said is a kind of metaphor for modern secular society. Contemporary society has attempted to do away with religion, but because it cannot find anything to replace religion with, it has been confronted over and over by the resurrected hydra. So the void remains.

This wasn’t always the case. Harvard began as a seminary, and its earliest ideal was Charles Kingsley’s “manly Christian character,” which was propagated in the form of the daily chapel and which the liberal reformist Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, abolished in 1886. Later, with the rise of science, the intellectual program came to revolve around citizenship and manly duty to society and state, but even this identity was lost during the 60s. The inclusion of minorities in the university system made the enforcement of WASP virtues both politically unfeasible and morally unjustifiable. Since then, we have witnessed a kind of moral dispersion. We now value excellence but don’t know what to be excellent in.

The answer is not to return to religion and Protestant values. No matter how much some conservatives may wish it, that era is over. William F. Buckley, still shamelessly venerated by the conservative establishment, opposed meritocratic admissions for racial and ethnic minorities at Yale in 1967 when he ran a guerilla campaign to obtain a seat on the Yale Corporation (he lost). Being a minority, I, like many others, am indebted to the liberal revolution.

What must happen now is a revival of moral inquiry in higher education. It must be humble, to be sure, one that does not preach a certain view of the good life but encourages us to search for it. It is not morality I am advocating, but moral inquiry.

This is a task that universities have all but abandoned. Harvard College, under the leadership of Dean Henry Rosovsky in 1978, irresponsibly marginalized moral inquiry to a “moral reasoning” core requirement, fooling itself into thinking that a few months of reading can aid the self-realization of a lifetime. The latest update on the Core similarly ghettoizes moral reasoning into a fixed few courses.

Of course, one might say a discussion of any text, literature or history or politics, involves moral discussion and judgment. I am, of course, not blind to the moral force of humanistic inquiry, a point that Martha Nussbaum, among others, has made quite well. But the current model of university education seems particularly divorced from human action; its practical dimension seems to have been outsourced to extracurricular groups on campus. Yet mere intellectualism cannot in any way be said to replace the satisfaction of religious instruction.

What the College should do is expand an already-existing essay program, in which freshmen come together to discuss, among other texts, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” within their proctor groups. The initiative was started by Archie C. Epps III, in part to counter the racial tensions on campus that eventually led to randomization. Since then, essays have been added and subtracted, but Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” has always been among them.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of Epps’ regiment. Whether or not it aided racial integration is irrelevant, though it probably did. This was Harvard’s first mandatory intellectual anything in 43 years, and it is everything the Core is not. The program legislates importance; the text is decided by administrative fiat. It built a community: Everyone underwent a shared experience. Epps had singlehandedly revived a tradition that had been dead at Harvard for almost half a century.

At last, we have precedent. The College must expand this program to include sophomores, juniors, and seniors, who too should have a similar start to their year. Students will be free to disagree with the texts. They can say, for example, that Emerson was racist (on Blacks: “destined for museums like the Dodo”), or that he contradicted himself on many occasions, or that his views are unconducive to a stable society. The point is not to achieve consensus, but rather to help students think practically, for themselves, of how life must be lived.

Most of Harvard is a theme park built for professors and scholars. Students are mere trespassers. But there are some functioning rides, and the freshman week textual discussion is one of them. My discussion group provoked genuine debate; it felt important and gave value to the idea of a liberal arts education. It was among the best I’ve ever had at Harvard. This indicates the quality of that discussion, but it also tells you something of what ails Harvard today.

Sahil K. Mahtani ’08 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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