A Jeremiad for an American School


Through these last few years of transition at Harvard, a corrosive notion has been seeping into the groundwater: the idea that a “global university” should focus relatively less of its intellectual energy on the United States. To those who consider this country an experiment in noble and complex human principles, this way of thinking is merely disagreeable. But academic faux-cosmopolitanism is also just untrue: the U.S. is itself the keystone of any viable account of globalization. If anything, intellectual engagement with American public affairs should now be more, not less, central to Harvard’s mission.

Contrary to the general intuition, a heightening of national awareness is the primary value of international study. By encountering other cultures, students from the U.S. learn something about their own thinking. Most of us at this school, indeed, think like Americans. It is not intellectual integrity that leads us to pretend otherwise­—and if we strive for “pure,” generic efficacy in academic life, we are apt to miss out on rich legacies in American thought.

With a nationalist mindset, then, in my final weeks as a member of this academic community, I offer an instance of the most primal and distinctive kind of American speech: a jeremiad for the occasion.

In the colonial pulpits of this area, fire-and-brimstone orations scorched the consciences of backsliding Puritan congregations. Termed the “jeremiad,” such a sermon maintains an uncompromising, and strangely exultant, insistence that every day, members of an egalitarian community make a choice: the ideal society we are called to build, or your own, pathetic, selfish desires, you maggot. Which’ll it be today?

A university jeremiad, delivered from within, should define the choices of Harvard students, leaders, and professors—as starkly as possible.

University President Lawrence H. Summers said in his address to undergraduates on Sunday, “At a time like this, the question should never be what you are against.” But those colonial New England preachers understood a practical fact about communities: though we might wish it otherwise, people find unity and value by focusing together on what they oppose. Hence the jeremiad employs the logic of opposition—and, remarkably, it does so without demonizing other people. Sin is found within the congregation, not elsewhere; any witch-hunt goes on in your own soul.

So the question is: What should Harvard oppose in order to know itself better? For me, the beginning of an answer has emerged from a careful study of some of the stationery in my office. The community-defining text for today is the single word, Veritas: Truth.

What is the opposite of Truth?

In the first place, Truth opposes Error. A university with the motto Veritas should counter wrongness and contemn it if it turns out to be willful. Why should a judge, rather than a university, be the first to state authoritatively that “The doctrine of ‘intelligent design’ [is] a religious strategy” rather than a scientific one? We have unanimity among theologians and biologists, and a Communications Office—and yet there was no rebuttal even to an ignorant Associated Press story last year, headlined “Harvard Joins Evolution Debate,” which implied that Harvard researchers’ work on the origins of raw molecular rudiments had something to do with science’s account of the origins of species.

A more spectacular example of willful wrongness involves elementary textual interpretation. The U.S.’ current executive branch is working under a dead-wrong theory about the nature of its power. (A new book by Glenn Greenwald lays out the details.) The constitutional arguments underlying recent claims of unfettered and unreviewable executive freedom to break the law are laughably erroneous. No faculty of jurisprudence should abide their promulgation. Students should be reading them to each other with disdain at dedicated Institute of Politics meetings and workshops on constitutional crisis.

In the second place, Truth opposes Lying. Two particularly significant lies will stand in here for the current epidemic of civic dishonesty in the U.S.—and by now this jeremiad has begun to seem hopelessly unhip (or, in the current shorthand, “partisan”). It is not suave to be indignant about public lying. But like error, lying violates ideals to which universities in particular are dedicated.

Medicare’s chief actuary calculated in 2003, before Congress voted on the prescription-drug benefit, a 10-year cost for the program: $599.5 billion. His boss told him, “We have to keep this from getting out,” and added, “The consequences for insubordination are extraordinarily severe.” Congress voted for the law believing that it would cost $395 billion. Rather than decrying this impudence toward economic method, Harvard turned meekly to the study of next policy steps. (One such Harvard Medical School analysis was tellingly titled “How the Game Is Played.”)

The invasion of Iraq was initiated through a lie—although the rock-ribbed proof of this has gone nearly unremarked on campus. The war was, ostensibly, undertaken to prevent massively destructive weapons in Iraq from falling into the wrong hands. Yet between April 3 and May 24, 2003, after U.S. troops occupied, searched, and vacated the al-Qa’qaa weapons depot, looters carted off 335 tons of ultra-high-grade plastic explosive from its known location in International Atomic Energy Agency-sealed bunkers there. (Yes: 335 tons. This is enough explosive for several thousand Oklahoma City bombings.) It is impossible to imagine a strategic mistake this large being included in any war plan meant to secure extraordinarily powerful weapons.

In light of what al-Qa’qaa (and the lack of any subsequent investigation) reveals about the goals of its civilian planners, it is simply not possible that the current war arose from near-term national-security concerns. Yet a search of Harvard websites turns up only two hits for al-Qa’qaa and its variants.

In our cosmopolitanism, are we neutral between truth and lies? Neutral between correctness and error? Where, in your daily professional and social life, is the evidence to the contrary?

Reasonable people cannot disagree about the untruths enmeshed with the world-altering events of the last few years.

And yet daily we practice tolerance toward untruth. Dismissal of historical fact, degradation of interpretive principle, plain concepts purposefully eroded, impudence toward empirical sciences; bare and slanderous celebration of ignorance itself—we call these things “politics” and change the subject. We are polite to a fault, and beyond.

Each day the student, the dean, the professor make an intellectual choice: Veritas, or your manners;,Veritas, or your professionalism. Which’ll it be today?

Jim von der Heydt is Lecturer on History and Literature and is the outgoing Resident Dean of Winthrop House.