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The Virtue We Forgot

Well-behaved revolutionaries rarely make history

By Sahil K. Mahtani

It was, despite everything, a tepid sort of rebellion. The Undergraduate Council (UC) president appeared on dais, invited, as requested, and at the appointed time. Many a mother would have been proud of the gray suit, under which lay a checked oxford shirt (blue), and a tie (burgundy) to match.

As for the speech itself, it was polite, if unpolished. The purpose was to fault the lack of student input in administrative decisions, which he associated with citizenship, as in: “This denial of citizenship must end now!” (Polite, somewhat confused, applause.) From “one president to another,” Ryan A. Petersen ’08 continued, possibly without irony, “change does not come easily to these hallowed grounds.”

I suspect Petersen was going for a rousing battle-cry. What he produced instead were sweet cooing noises. Unsurprisingly, this intimidated nobody. “I thought he was great,” said President Faust. “I thought he spoke his mind.”

This is no way to wage a revolution.

Indeed, Harvard has traditionally done better. I think not only of the student rebellions in the early 1800s under President Kirkland, but also of November 1966, when in the middle of the jungle war in Vietnam, Robert S. McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense, was mobbed on Mill St. outside Quincy House.

Students from SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) began pressing in around his car and rocking it, side to side. McNamara, thinking he could reason with them, left his car and attempted a kind of lecture. But they would not listen to the person David I. Halberstam ’55 later unapologetically called “a fool.” McNamara, sensing danger, fled through a Quincy House door, and was escorted to the Yard through an underground tunnel.

Whether we agree with SDS—and there are real qualms—we must admire their boldness. Not only have we lost this today, we cannot appreciate it in other people.

In a recent op-ed, Caleb L. Weatherl ’10, criticized Petersen for an “embarrassing,” “misguided,” and “distasteful” speech. Weatherl’s point was that challenging authority made no sense because authorities were usually right. But what if authorities make bad decisions? (Hell, what about Iraq?) He did not say.

Right on cue, this paper’s Editorial Board also attempted an opinion, only to fail utterly by trying to have it both ways, praising Petersen’s speech but faulting him for his timing.

Welcome to Harvard, where the students are terrified of making a scene. (We’re also really boring apparently.) Of course people should say controversial things in public—yes, even at ceremonial events. Good heavens, what else are public speeches for?

The right conclusion to draw is not that Petersen shouldn’t have spoken. It’s that he should have been bolder, more eloquent, more persuasive, and more magisterial in his delivery. It could have been a speech to remember, and he could have been a hero.

Here’s what he should have said: “Harvard today is good but it is not great. Her students are ambitious, but they are aimless. Subject to substandard undergraduate education, her students are incentivized to maximize their GPAs. Her professors are not incentivized to teach.

“Students here are also incredibly unhappy. The only comparative surveys we have done show students at Princeton, Yale, and similar schools to be more satisfied, by far, than students here.

“These are problems previous administrations have failed to solve, and problems that stand before you today. President Faust. You inherit a college in dire need of change.

“Henry Adams once remarked that the four years he passed at Harvard College “were, for his purposes, wasted.” I pray this not be true today. On behalf of the student body, I pledge our fullest support and our confidence in your abilities to guide this University. We’ve got work to do.”

And there he should have ended it.

When later asked about his speech, Petersen said, “I was very deferential to Faust.” “I didn’t put it to the University too hard.”

The virtue he forgot was courage.

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

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