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To Fulfill Its Social Mission, Harvard Must Resist Social Pressures

By Mairead B. Baker
By Edward J. Hall, Contributing Opinion Writer
Edward J. Hall is the Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy and a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. This piece represents solely his views — not those of CAFH.

I believe that a university has two great obligations to society: To foster the discovery and dissemination of knowledge and understanding, and to prepare students for lives of meaning, purpose, and service. To fulfill these social obligations, a university must enjoy the right kind of independence from society.

Take Harvard’s research mission first. “To advance new ideas and promote enduring knowledge” — whether in physics, history, philosophy, or any other field — requires a remorseless vetting process.

As a professor and scholar, when I claim to have produced a novel contribution, the very first reaction I expect from my colleagues is skepticism. ‘What’s the basis for your claim? Have you considered an appropriately broad range of alternative answers to your question? What are the strongest objections to your view, and how do you rebut them?’

In short: ‘How would you know if you were wrong?’

A deep concern for truth motivates these questions, along with the awareness that some of the greatest obstacles to getting at the truth lie right in our own heads, in the form of biases that incline us to believe things even in the face of good reasons not to.

Perhaps we are biased because our beliefs make us feel good, or because we take pride in being the ones who thought them up, or because they’re what our ‘tribe’ expects us to believe, or because there is money, power, or glory at stake in getting others to believe them too.

If you want a reminder of how potent and dangerous these biases can be, just reflect for a moment on the polarized state of current public political discourse. The natural human condition is for these biases to flourish. The university, by contrast, should exist precisely to be an unnatural place, a place where these biases wither thanks to an entrenched scholarly habit of ruthless critique, founded on our collective knowledge of our own fallibility and our collective desire to overcome it.

It is in this sense that Harvard must be independent from society at large.

This is not the independence of ignorance, which understands us as entitled to pay no attention to what people outside our walls are saying or doing. Quite the contrary: People outside our walls constantly make discoveries or raise possibilities worth serious scholarly consideration, and it is often by attending to the broader conditions of society that we discover questions urgently needing addressing.

But how we settle those questions is different. For this purpose, the demands of truth-seeking mean that it just cannot matter which answer is most preferred by politicians, or monied interests, or the ‘woke mob’, or (for that matter) the ‘anti-woke mob.’

The same goes for Harvard’s educational mission. We do not teach primarily to produce the next generation of scholarly researchers: Most of our students go on to find other ways to contribute to society at large. We do (I hope) aim to instill in our students certain scholarly habits of mind, especially the habits of mind that lead us to embrace serious, good-faith, curiosity-driven engagement with those who disagree with us.

That means getting our students to wrestle with and understand, at a deep level, viewpoints they do not like or may even find abhorrent. It means ensuring that the student body itself features a broad range of viewpoints and life experiences so that students’ social interactions with one another provide a second, equally rich occasion for learning.

Yes, we teach lots of plain old content. But, crucially, we must also focus on expanding our students’ horizons, getting them to the point where they can think — both individually and together — in a way that emphasizes learning from those who see things differently. And just as it would be a disaster to let outside influences affect how we answer our research questions, so too it would be a disaster to decide what or how to teach based on the whims or preferences of politicians, monied interests, or a ‘wokeness’-obsessed mob.

We also need independence in our governance. That independence is now under threat, as demonstrated by former University President Claudine Gay’s resignation and the events that produced it.

Here is a version of events that could have happened but didn’t.

A properly convened University committee, comprising Harvard faculty with expertise in Gay’s field, begins work examining the allegations of plagiarism leveled against President Gay. The committee does its work patiently, thoroughly, carefully — the way scholars are supposed to proceed. (Indeed, this is how accusations against students proceed: dispassionately, without politics, without bias.)

After a few weeks, the committee issues a thoughtful report, with recommendations. Maybe, in light of them, President Gay resigns. Maybe she doesn’t. We won’t ever know, because this wasn’t allowed to happen.

That it didn’t — and that Harvard faces similar political pressures on its research and teaching — puts us at a moment of peril, possibly approaching that faced by universities during the era of McCarthyism.

It would not surprise me in the least if politicians like Rep. Elise M. Stefanik ’06 (R-N.Y.) — people who care not one whit about preserving colleges and universities as sites for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but who definitely smell blood in the water — press for yet more influence on institutions like Harvard. I’m prepared for the next headline announcing congressional ‘investigations’ into ‘woke curricula on college campuses.’

When these actors do turn up the pressure, the proper response won’t be to ignore them; even weasels arguing in bad faith can say things worth considering. But it will be to resist the temptation to respond with anything but a clear-eyed evaluation of the facts. Not because we owe nothing to the world outside our walls, but because we owe so much.

Edward J. Hall is the Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy and a co-president of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. This piece represents solely his views — not those of CAFH.

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