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The Caricatures of Harvard

By J. Gram Slattery

In popular culture, Harvard has a conflicted image.

To many on the right, the school’s politics is several shades redder than crimson. It’s a steward of radical leftism—a cabal of statism and collectivism. Richard Nixon infamously called it the “Kremlin-on-the-Charles” back in the 1970s. By the time Ted Cruz claimed in 2013 that Harvard Law was staffed by “Marxists” who believed in “overthrowing the U.S. government,” his comments seemed more a cliché than genuine offense.

In the past year, some of The Crimson’s staff editorials have come under criticism from conservative publications for their liberal obstinacy, and the formation of Munch, Harvard’s kinky sex club, was seen by many as sign of our institution’s moral relativism.

At the same time, if there’s one school that liberals malign as an epicenter of elitism, privilege, and social immobility, it’s Harvard.

During the Occupy movement, left-wing protestors weren’t storming the gates of Swarthmore; they were here, lined up against a cordon of HUPD officers on Mass Ave. Even the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, while acknowledging the generosity of our school’s financial aid programs, supported the occupation in a Washington Post op-ed.

The left’s suspicion of our university was distilled late this August, when Harper’s ran a cover piece titled, “Saving Your Children from a Harvard Education.” Its author, Jeff Madrick, basically claimed that the school’s professors have done much to destroy the American dream and rig the economy in favor of greedy corporatists. He points to a flawed study by economics professor Kenneth Rogoff, which the right used to ward off aggressive fiscal policy during the Great Recession. He attacks Niall Ferguson for his wildly inappropriate comments regarding John Maynard Keynes’ sexuality. Several other faculty members are also on his chopping block.

Madrick also implies that the kids who go here—presumably us—are slowly buying into this neoliberal worldview, consciously or subconsciously.

So it seems that both the right and left have a dystopian image of our school, one in which we’re all brainwashed automata, trained to be either greedy, conformist free-marketeers or hardcore leftists.

Though these popular critiques of Harvard come from opposite directions, they’re both wrong in the same basic ways. Firstly, they fail to understand that the vast majority of students here are establishment liberals of some kind. There may be plenty of socialists among us, and plenty of conservatives, but much ink has been spilt about the novelty of their social position, as if they’re wholly outside the Harvard milieu looking in.

Secondly, freshmen’s minds aren’t blank slates. We all have our share of political preconceptions when we arrive, and we usually leave with a solid chunk of them still intact. That isn’t to say that our politics don’t subtly shift during our Harvard careers. But our professors’ politics are not our own, and a hardcore feminist-Marxist isn’t going to finish Ferguson’s course on “Western Ascendancy” thinking Keynes was blinkered by his homosexuality.

Still, these liberal and conservative narratives of Harvard aren’t without flecks of truth. We do have staunch leftists and rightist ideologues within our faculty. But what commentators don’t understand is that we’re exposed to a mixture of these viewpoints, which—they would likely agree—is a good thing

It’s true that most professors subscribe to some form of liberalism, and you can tell by some of the course names.

But walk into one of Harvey Mansfield’s political philosophy classes or read his controversial book, “Manliness,” and you’ll be subjected to a blistering critique of liberal relativism and the inadequacies of academia. Listen to Ferguson for a semester, and you’ll have your liberal assumptions about the colonial era and, yes, Keynes, thoroughly challenged.

On the other side of the spectrum, I’ve had the pleasure of reading social theory for a year with a self-described “Marxist” professor, which did precipitate in a slight move leftward. I’ve even had a statistics class during the Ec10 walkout, in which the instructor would satirically refer to Professor Gregory Mankiw as “Man Cow.”

Within the student body—though, again, we’re mainly liberals—there are students from the extremes, and they’re by far the most vocal. One of my blockmates is a dedicated social conservative.  I remember him publishing an orthodox response to one of my op-eds last year and trying to turn some of my atheistic friends toward Catholicism. When I published a comical account of an evening with the Harvard Socialists last fall, I received a response letter from a radical peer, informing me that many student organizations were stuffed with communists and socialists, and that I hadn’t examined a representative sample.

So despite the negative, extreme Harvard narratives put forth by conservative and liberal commentators, Harvard itself has no extreme narrative. Yes, we have a lot of liberals, and our economics department, like so many others, is stuffed with conservatives. But despite the attacks hurled at us by every political faction—and despite the fact that, yes, there are a lot of moderate left-leaners here—a curious student would be hard pressed to leave Harvard without having his political assumptions challenged and stretched in multiple directions.

If that’s not the case for a specific individual, perhaps it’s time to start blaming his course selection strategy, rather than the institution in which he’s situated.

J. Gram Slattery ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Kirkland House.

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