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Harvard’s Kavanaughs

From Kavanaugh to now, we haven't changed.

By Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
By Shireen Younus, Crimson Opinion Writer
Shireen Younus ’20, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

In the past few weeks, multiple women have come forward alleging that Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh harassed, assaulted, or even raped them. The accounts begin from when Kavanaugh was a high school student, just 17 years old. They continue into his subsequent college career at Yale.

At Yale, Kavanaugh’s behavior was part of a larger “boys will be boys” culture that was furthered by aggressive drinking games and secret societies. This reality does not surprise me. But I am disappointed — not only were the (lack of) morals which informed Kavanaugh's abhorrent behavior left unchallenged at Yale, but his treatment of women seems to have been accepted as the reality of that time and place.

This article is not about debating Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence. I consider the women who have come forward brave beyond measure. I respect them. I believe them. And their allegations make clear that Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior was a pattern, one that continued and even thrived at Yale, and one that certainly did not change for the better. So, this article is about one simple question.

Why didn’t Kavanaugh change? And why don’t more students at these institutions change?

I am not naive; I do not think everyone is destined to embark upon a lifelong journey culminating in moral enlightenment. But I do believe that people, especially 17-year-olds, are capable of change. And more importantly, I believe it is the mission of institutions like Yale — institutions whose goal is to create the next generation of leaders — to serve as environments where students grow into better people.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Yale College clearly states its mission as one to “educate [students] ... to develop their intellectual, moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest … to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity.” And as a student at a peer institution, this statement reminds me of our own mission here at Harvard, which is “to educate the citizen-leaders for our society … through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education.”

And so, I wonder, at institutions which profess not only to create the world’s leaders, but also to develop the “moral capacities” of these leaders, how is it acceptable that students who enter do not change for the better?

I ask this because, in my experience, Kavanaugh’s case is not unique. At elite universities such as ours, it is rare to see students change positively. In fact, most of my peers entered Harvard not at all interested in transforming into better people, but rather, focused on transitioning into the next elite echelon.

For some, the transition is to another elite university, and four years are spent working by the book in pursuit of an elusive medical school or law school acceptance letter. For others, the transition is to an elite six-figure job, with fall semester spent in a flurry of pantsuits and blazers, and jobs secured before college is even halfway over.

For students who come from excellent high schools and wealthy families, the transition is simply being funneled into even higher levels of privilege, through final clubs, exclusive social networks, and easily secured finance internships. For students who are interested in politics, the transition is being funnelled into an all-encompassing belief system. These students enter college attached to a political ideology, and then quickly solidify their stances by joining partisan political groups and interning with powerful politicians. Instead of questioning or critiquing their beliefs, students entrench themselves in their political opinions as quickly as possible so as to maximize professional success.

There is no space to transform here. There is only time to move, and to move up, and to do it fast. There is only a script: Finding an internship, joining a final club, studying, partying, repeat. And far too often, this script includes hurting others. Sometimes that means picking a problem set over a friend in need of help. Sometimes it is more harmful, like participating in exclusive and sexist social spaces without any qualms. And sometimes, as we see in the accusations brought against Kavanaugh, it can be extreme. Assault. Rape. Driving a peer to trauma, and not even caring.

The complete disinterest in change, coupled with the supremacy of individual ambition which enables harmful behavior, results in a culture defined by moral carelessness. Following the script becomes an instinct, and no part of the script is devoted to self-interrogation. No space is given for the discomfort that comes with self-critique. Thus, there is no possibility of changing for the better.

Harvard, Yale, and our peer institutions must combat this. The administrations should work against this mentality of transition, whether by strengthening advising networks so that students are more comfortable with exploration and failure or by promoting a liberal arts education which emphasizes moral reasoning beyond ancient Chinese philosophy or Greek mythology.

But most importantly, we as students must lean into discomfort. This means engaging outside of our silos and interrogating the assumptions behind our beliefs. It means looking out for others, which includes both the friend who is overwhelmed during midterms season and the stranger at a party who needs help. It means being self-critical and conscious of how we ourselves engage in harmful behavior and uphold power structures. It means choosing to change and improve ourselves and the spaces we are part of.

When we step out of Harvard Yard, we depart to better serve our kind. But by furthering a culture of transition and carelessness, we have been unable to serve even our own peers here in the Yard. And as long as we remain unwilling to change, our institutions will never create true leaders. Instead, we will continue producing men like Brett Kavanaugh — those who, instead of changing for the better, act to further the worst.

So if we wish to change the world, we must learn to change ourselves first.

Shireen Younus ’20, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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