In my forty-nine years as a professor at Harvard, I have seen a change from the Old Harvard, a place of tradition with its prejudices, to the New Harvard, a place of prestige with its own prejudices. What’s the difference?
At the Old Harvard there was arrogance and yet an embarrassed reluctance to admit being at Harvard, and attitude now casually and openly mocked. A difference is that now the joke applies to Harvard women as well as Harvard men. At the Old Harvard, this reluctance was assured arrogance trying not to be condescending; now it is truly embarrassed and apologetic, humility fighting with pride.
The pride comes from consciousness of merit and is thus a reasonable pride. Respect for merit gives confidence that the inequalities resident in our democracy are the source of progress rather than reaction. Call it meritocracy if you will, but it is better for us than any alternative. This was the confidence of the Old Harvard, as it was the liberal Harvard that reigned before the Late Sixties. It reflected an acute contradiction in our democracy between the demand for ever more equality and the progress that results from the desire to make oneself better than others by competing with them.
Now, confidence in progress has been replaced by postulation of change. Progress is achieved and can be welcomed, but change just happens and must be adjusted to. Adjusting to change is now the unofficial motto of Harvard: mutabilitas instead of veritas. To adjust, the new Harvard must avoid adherence to any principle that does not change, even liberal principle. Yet in fact Harvard maintains three principles: diversity, choice, and equality.
To respect change, diversity must serve to overcome stereotypes, even as stereotypes are necessary to diversity. How else is a Midwesterner “diverse” if he is not a hayseed? Diversity of opinion cannot be tolerated when it might hinder change.
In the same way, choice in our curriculum is displayed in a dizzying array of courses that allow students to indulge their whims and protect their leisure. Choice is best when it does not produce devotion and leaves one’s options open. A devoted student makes himself unready for change. Respect for merit remains, but it yields to contemporary conventions of self-esteem in which everyone is entitled to a point of view—and, need I add, a high grade.
Equality is prized not because equality is good but because nothing is good. No standard exists by which we could understand ourselves as unequal.
These three tenets seek to abolish principle itself because adherence to it ultimately stands in the way of further change. In practice, however, no one favors unchanging change. Feminists at Harvard, so influential in the making of the New Harvard, oppose the idea they call “essentialism,” that there is an essential, unchanging distinction between the sexes. To be sure that the sexes are not fixed, some of them—the early, most fearless feminists—argued that nothing is fixed. But to achieve gender equality, it turns out to be necessary to recognize the career disadvantages of being a woman—as if woman were a fixed being. Is a woman something fixed or something open and unlimited? This is a question not yet answered at the New Harvard.
Through all this, one group is exempt from the demand for change: the scientists. To them the University is divided into science and non-science; only the former is true knowledge while the latter is likely to be mush. However, scientists easily forget that science cannot prove that science is good, that their whole project is founded upon what is at best unscientific common sense. They do not see that the unscientific foundation of science leaves science far short of wisdom, whether practical or theoretical. Science cannot answer the question why human beings resist science at least as strongly as they embrace it. It cannot prove to us why knowledge is better than prejudice.
It is the job of the humanities to make non-science into something positive that could be called human in the best sense. This crucial work, which is necessary to science and, dareI add, more difficult and more important than science, is hardly addressed in our universities. Leading this effort, or “leading from behind,” as the phrase goes, is the humanities faculty at Harvard. They are the ones who have established change as the principle that, for lack of anything better, can be agreed upon. In its more thoughtful expression, that principle is known as post-modern. What is modern is faith in science and progress, and what is post-modern is the transformation of progress into mere change.
When there is no basis for what we agree on, it becomes imperative that we agree. The very fragility of change as a principle makes us hold on to it with insistence and tenacity. Having nothing to conform to, we conform to conformism- hence political correctness. Political correctness makes a moral principle of opposing, and excluding, those of us who believe in principles that do not change. This is the atmosphere—somehow both thin and stifling—of the New Harvard.
Harvey C. Mansfield ’53 is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University.