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A Call for A Civic Awakening

2016 Elections: Students at the IOP
Caroline M. Tervo '18 speaks at the Institute of Politics in 2016.

Ever since the day I received my admissions letter, I have not stopped hearing that the mission of our University is to educate citizen-leaders not only for this country, but for the entire world. According to a plethora of administrators of every rank, Harvard is destined to produce people who will open new paths and set innovative standards in the fields of science, business, and politics. However, three years of campus life have convinced me that our university is largely failing to meet its noble aspirations.

Many voices will certainly object to this heretic claim and will point out that Harvard provides its students with a rigorous preparation for the vocation they would like to follow. With regard to politics, for instance, our university invites world-renowned speakers, organizes study groups and offers a wide range of classes on the tools of an effective administration. Yet, a true leader is not defined exclusively by his technical knowledge and his expertise over a particular subject. Instead, he is primarily distinguished by his composed character, his predilection for critical thinking, and his ability to persuade and inspire even those who initially tend to disagree with him.

In order to achieve the latter, the aspiring leader has to cultivate the faculty of compassion and understand the paramount importance of constructively engaging with the diverse viewpoints of  those around him. If he believes that there is a single formula for the maximization of social welfare and rejects any arguments that confront his ideological biases, he will sow the seeds of disunion and fail to mobilize the full potential of human energy. If, on the other hand, he puts himself in the shoes of others and tries to meaningfully respond to their concerns, as outlandish as they might seem at first glance, he will gain their respect and enthusiastic support.

Despite its undeniable merits, this model of empathetic leadership is not actively promoted at Harvard. To the dismay of many students who currently choose not to participate in any type of political activity, public discourse on campus is dominated by self-righteous and intransigeant vocal minorities. On the left, one can find several groups fighting for isolated issues of social justice, without integrating them into a coherent ideological agenda. In the meanwhile, on the right, it is easy to spot angry reactionaries who believe that intellectual enrichment can be attained by giving a platform to extremely controversial speakers. As a result, the two opposing sides end up exchanging thinly veiled insults and thinking that they have nothing in common. Inevitably, a question arises: Where do we go from here?

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The answer lies in radically increasing the number of the opportunities available for people to express their political opinions through institutionalized fora. Study groups and speaker series are formative, but not at all sufficient for shaping well-informed leaders, because they do not enable their attendants to become active democratic agents. What Harvard needs, instead, is big campus-wide debates, in which students would employ normative arguments while confronting each other within a civil setting. Moreover, our university would benefit from the establishment of “thought societies,” clubs built around a common passion for a particular strand of political philosophy. These societies would hold regular discussions for their members and would organize intellectual mixers across ideological boundaries, a practice that has been tested with great success at other reputable establishments of higher education.

However, none of these measures would be effective if we did not face the elephant in the room: the lack of incentives for the involvement of our generation in political affairs. Unfortunately, Harvard as an institution cannot do much with regard to this dimension. It cannot force its students to be civic-minded and to sacrifice precious working time which could be dedicated to building a better resume for the demanding job market of today. That is why the responsibility of advancing a spirit of healthy concern for public welfare rests upon each one of us individually. Under no circumstances should we forget that Harvard is a true “city on a hill,” the most renowned and influential liberal arts college across the globe. Hence, we should always look beyond our narrow private interests and humbly put our hard-earned privileges in the service of the world.

Thomas Chatzieleftheriou ’19, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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