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Op Eds

Reaping What We Have Taught

By Harry R. Lewis, Contributing Opinion Writer
Harry R. Lewis ’68 is a Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science. He served as Dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003.

Let’s go back to how Harvard’s current crisis began: charges of antisemitism.

Why antisemitism seems to be a problem at Harvard and other universities is one of the still-unanswered questions that precipitated the University’s downward spiral.

But, it surely is not Claudine Gay’s fault. It is not because Harvard admits antisemitic students or hires antisemitic faculty. No one is suggesting there are comparable antisemitism problems in other kinds of institutions — such as hospitals or libraries — so there must be something that uniquely happens in universities.

That something must be the source of our woes.

***

Unapologetic antisemitism — whether the incidents are few or numerous — is a college phenomenon because of what we teach, and how our teachings are exploited by malign actors.

The Harvard online course catalog has a search box. Type in “decolonize.” That word — though surely not the only lens through which to view the current relationship between Europe and the rest of the world — is in the titles of seven courses and the descriptions of 18 more.

Try “oppression” and “liberation.” Each is in the descriptions of more than 80 courses. “Social justice” is in over 100. “White supremacy” and “Enlightenment” are neck and neck, both ahead of “scientific revolution” but behind “intersectionality.”

Though word frequency is an imperfect measure and the precise counts are muddied by duplicate numberings and courses at MIT, this experiment supports the suspicion that the Harvard curriculum has become heavily slanted toward recent fashions of the progressive left.

For example, “intersectionality” was almost unattested before the year 2000, while published uses of “decolonize” have more than tripled since then.

Merchants of hate are repurposing these intellectual goods that universities are producing.

When complex social and political histories are oversimplified in our teachings as Manichaean struggles — between oppressed people and their oppressors, the powerless and the powerful, the just and the wicked — a veneer of academic respectability is applied to the ugly old stereotype of Jews as evil but deviously successful people.

While Harvard cannot stop the abuse of our teaching, we, the Harvard faculty, can recognize and work to mitigate these impacts.

The political bias in our faculty is now widely accepted. One solution is to use a kind of affirmative action program for conservative thinkers to change the faculty, but that idea is noxious and misses a crucial point.

Professors should not be carrying their ideologies into the classroom. Our job as teachers of “citizens and citizen-leaders” is not to indoctrinate students, but to prepare them to grapple with all of the ideas they will encounter in the societies they will serve.

Instead, individual faculty might diversify what they teach. Committees and departments could enforce a standard that curricula exhibit intellectual diversity and a variety of agreed-upon topics and techniques.

If done correctly, it would not infringe upon individual academic freedom to allow our faculty colleagues to have a stronger role in shaping each others’ syllabi and curricula. Nor would it be improper for the Board of Overseers — with its elaborate Visiting Committee structure — to weigh in on the evident political biases and ideological vectors in our educational program.

As obvious as this all may sound, it would be a big change from the present.

Over the fifty years I have been on the Harvard faculty, the expectation has evolved that individual Harvard professors are free to teach whatever they wish to whomever they wish. It was once the norm for faculty to rotate through courses of unpredictable size and with stable curricula, but now enrollments are predetermined quite rigorously and even introductory courses may change their reading lists and lecture topics drastically when new professors take charge.

Curricular committees theoretically vet these courses, but not annually, and not for the kinds of political biases that have skewed undergraduate education. The result is to favor the hip, current, and “relevant,” over foundational learning — what instructors personally believe to the exclusion of what students should learn to participate knowledgeably in the world outside our gates.

***

The leftward shift of Harvard’s faculty deserves scrutiny. Judicious changes to the hiring and promotion process can thwart intellectual inbreeding — just as the current tenure system, now tired and manipulable, was once an innovative revamp of a system that resulted in ethnic and gender homogeneity. Now is the time to change a system that will take decades to alter the composition of the faculty.

But there is no need to wait for that reform.

The goal is not to give students a choice between courses reflecting different ideologies. Harvard should instead expect instructors to leave their politics at the classroom door and touch both sides of controversial questions, leaving students uncertain where their sympathies lie. Professors should have no more right to exclude from their teaching ideas with which they disagree than students should expect to be shielded from ideas they find disagreeable.

All that is required is for faculty to exhibit some humility about the limits of their own wisdom and embrace the formula for educational improvement voiced by Le Baron R. Briggs, a Harvard dean, more than a century ago: “increased stress on offering what should be taught rather than what the teachers wish to teach.”

Harry R. Lewis ’68 is a Gordon McKay Research Professor of Computer Science. He served as Dean of Harvard College from 1995 to 2003.

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