An Interview with Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield

Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1962. He has written or translated works on Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke as well as a book on Manliness. His notable former students include: Andrew Sullivan, Alan KeyesWilliam KristolClifford OrwinPaul Cantor, Delba Winthrop, Mark LillaFrancis Fukuyama, and Shen Tong.

JOHN LEO You’re known for giving two sets of grades to your students. Why do you do this?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: One set of grades is my private opinion of the work they’ve done. And the other, a higher, official grade that goes to the Harvard registrar, is at or near the Harvard average. Right now, A is the most frequently given grade at Harvard, and A- is the median grade.

JOHN LEO: So this is your kindly answer to grade inflation. You pump up the official grades so your students can compete fairly for jobs with graduates of other colleges that dole out equally inflated grades. Have you had any kickback on that? Anybody protest it?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Never. At first, I thought students might be upset. But they sort of laugh. It’s obvious to them that the purpose of this is to prevent my having to punish them for taking my course,

JOHN LEO:  Let me ask you about the state of the colleges in general. Never before have we had so many students in college. And yet the signs of actual learning are slim. In fact, there’s a body of research about how little college students learn. The most resonant of those studies is the 2011 Richard Arum-Josipa Roksa book, “Academically Adrift.”

HARVEY MANSFIELD:  I think that is so. I haven’t been a student of it, but I did read that book, and it was quite convincing to me. The reason for it, I think, is that the universities have stopped pursuing truth for its own sake. They don’t think that there is such a thing as truth, or at least they have grave doubts about it. And that leaves everyone free to do his own thing. Harvey Mansfield

Then there is multiculturalism, the belief that all cultures are equal. So none is better than any other is. And that’s because there isn’t really any true culture or a culture higher or better than any other is. And so while many professors do their best, students are misled and generally demoralized by the view that learning fundamentally isn’t possible. All you can do is indoctrinate. And indoctrination is unprovably good, unprovably true. And that, I think, is why you’re seeing that lack of devotion to learning, and lack of accomplishment in learning seem to go together.

JOHN LEO:  So you think that the de-emphasis on learning is a direct result of relativism?

HARVEY MANSFIELD:  Yes, I do. This relativism is a sort of liberal view in a general political sense, but it’s been made much more specific by what’s called postmodern thinking.

JOHN LEO:  And do you think the shift toward activism on campus might have something to do with that? Because if you’re not studying and you want to apply things to get a better world, it seems to me, you’re pushed in the direction of activism instead of study.

HARVEY MANSFIELD:   Right. It can be activism, and it can also just be extracurricular activity, which is not as toxic as activism. The Harvard students that I see are sometimes more devoted to their extra-curriculars, as they call them, than to the courses they take. The courses they take are not very challenging, whereas extra-curriculars do challenge them, either in athletics or in competing with other ambitious students to get an impressive resume. The less presentable aspect of all the leisure time, which students have right now, is to protest in such a way as to try to force the university to adopt your politics or your policies.

JOHN LEO: How do you account for the emphasis on hurt feelings and aggression, micro-aggression, the resentment of people who are bent out of shape having to hear things they  don’t already agree with?

HARVEY MANSFIELD:  Well, again, students doubt that there really is anything fundamentally that they need to learn. And they look at themselves and say, if I don’t need to learn anything fundamentally, my attitudes deserve to remain as they are right now. And I’ll defend those attitudes, and defend them by feeling offended, rather than reconsider or stop and reflect and wonder if what I’m listening to in the classroom has any effect on my life.

JOHN LEO:  How do they become that touchy?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: This idea of being offended gains momentum from feminism, because feminism has used the notion of sexual harassment to establish something called a hostile environment, which had been applied to the workplace, but now also to universities. So women are entitled to be at a university which is welcoming to women, has safe spaces and which doesn’t require them to hear things that they don’t want to hear.

JOHN LEO: Right. A hostile environment now seems to include any difference of opinion, or even the slightest twinge of a hurt feeling.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Yes, I think that’s right. Because it becomes one’s moral duty to look for offenses. [laughs] And the people who give offense, even though they may be innocent or not ill meaning, still deserve to be smoked out, reproached and told that they are wrong.

JOHN LEO: At Yale it was the taking of offense at a very polite email from a professor disagreeing with the Halloween costume policy of Yale.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Yes. That professor wasn’t even a dissenter from the university policy.

JOHN LEO:  Many people have begun to use the word monoculture to describe the social sciences and the humanities, and sometimes the entire undergraduate machinery of colleges. Is that fair?

HARVEY MANSFIELD:  Yes, I think so. A monoculture’s the same thing as a multiculture [laughs]. And the reason is that the monoculture thinks that everything that deserves to be included in our culture has already been included.

JOHN LEO:  Right.

HARVEY MANSFIELD:   And that especially means the cultures or opinions of groups that  are oppressed in some way.


HARVEY MANSFIELD:  Well, there’s an official list of oppressed minorities, led by the gays, blacks, women, and others too. And, and once you’ve accommodated all these, then that’s sufficient to call yourself a multiculture. And a multiculture is that which…lifts or elevates diversity to monoculture.

JOHN LEO: Well, if there is a monoculture, those who resist it must have a tough time on most campuses. As you know, the rule of thumb is that each major campus is allowed one conservative – at Yale it’s Donald Kagan; at Princeton, Robbie George; and at Harvard, you.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Yeah [laughter]. That’s an exaggeration, but I’m afraid only a slight one.

JOHN LEO:   How has your experience been, being the house conservative at Harvard?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Not all that unpleasant, actually. I can’t say that I’m embattled. In fact, people do want to patronize me – [laughs] in a way that pleases them. They like me because I’m a kind of mascot, which proves that everything I say is false. If I can say it, then it must be sayable by anyone, and that means that conservatives or other minority viewpoints are not being overlooked, or disregarded.

JOHN LEO: Right. Well, is it harder for a young conservative or libertarian to get hired at Harvard?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Of course it is. Yes, it’s really very difficult for any conservative to get hired, especially in a field where politics matters, or which is close to politics, like my field.

JOHN LEO:  Yes, government.

HARVEY MANSFIELD:   or political science.

JOHN LEO:  Let me talk about this new book, Passing On the Right.  Are you familiar with it?


JOHN LEO:  It’s by two self-identified conservatives who say conservatives should keep their heads down and be happy to paddle along in a pseudo-liberal way until they get tenure.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: [laughs] That, they should be perhaps content if not happy to do that. I mean, that’s a kind of damnation that I’m not prey to — that one has to go along and pretend to be something other than what you are and believe. So I wouldn’t be consoled by that. There is this kind of mascot aspect that I just spoke of in which the universities pat a conservative on the back and say, we’re so glad we have you.

This happened once some years ago when I got an offer to go to the University of Chicago. And the chairwoman came up to me and said, “Oh, Harvey Mansfield, you mustn’t go. You’re our balance.” [laughter] And so I was one person, and I was the balance. That was also when I learned the difference between balance and diversity. Balance is what a conservative gives. And diversity is what liberals supply.

JOHN LEO:  In some of your profiles, I’ve sensed an attempt to be fair, along with this quizzical attitude of, why does he have such an undesired approach to academic work?


JOHN LEO: Given what you believe about the curriculum and how it’s constantly being watered down, why is it that administrators are so afraid to defend free speech on campus these days? If the curriculum doesn’t matter, why does incorrect speech?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Their understanding of free speech is dissenters’ speech, and dissenters are always on the left. So that simply adds to the monoculture that already exists. But they can’t think of conservative speech the same way.

JOHN LEO:  One example on the internet today — the pro-Trump chalking at Emory University has everyone in a lather. And one of the students who wanted the chalking removed and the perpetrators punished said, “Don’t they feel our pain?”

HARVEY MANSFIELD: [laughs] That’s really not a legitimate pain, when your fellow citizens disagree with you.

JOHN LEO:  Many think there’s an authoritarian tone growing on the campuses.

HARVEY MANSFIELD:   Well, yes. This is a tone of superiority and of disbelief that reasonable people could hold a different opinion. Diversity is everybody’s goal except when it comes to diverse opinions, or viewpoints.

JOHN LEO: Of course. Do you sense that it’s usually accompanied by a demand for a remedy or punishment of those who have upset your feelings? I mean, that would be more authoritarian than just censorship.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Well, that’s happened to me. A Harvard student two years ago called for me to be fired. This was a student who was a protester in Occupy Harvard. And it wasn’t listened to. But I don’t know any other professor in my time who’s ever had to face that sort of student’s demand.

JOHN LEO: College presidents as a group are not exactly profiles in courage. I notice only one college president in the last three or four turbulent months has said no to the protesters. And that was Krisov at Oberlin, who was confronted with a long list of non-negotiable student demands. And he said no. He said, “I’m happy to talk to you, but we don’t deal with non-negotiable demands here.”

HARVEY MANSFIELD: I’d have to say in defense of Harvard that our president, Drew Faust, said no to divestiture of fossil fuel investments, and to Israeli-related investments. So, you know, it is possible for dissenters to go too far.

JOHN LEO: Well, what about the rising demand from the left that Israeli professors not be invited over or be dealt with in any way?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Yes, that seems to me totally outrageous.

JOHN LEO: Well, I don’t think it’s in full bloom yet. But a few years ago, it was just laughed out of court. Now it’s not.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Right. But the pressure should be rejected loudly.

JOHN LEO:  Okay. Here’s the big question. Given the perilous state of the universities as you describe it, what can be done? What reform movement would you recommend or do you see coming at all?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: It’s very difficult. Because universities give tenure, and that means it’s very hard to remove or replace the faculty. In fact, it’s impossible. Also, supporting agencies exist. All the professional associations are politically correct, even more so than the universities themselves. The American Political Science Association is a good deal to the left, certainly of our Department of Government at Harvard – and I think that’s generally true of the professional associations. Those institutions are dominated by the most fervent activists on the left. And so they are not going to object to the monoculture in the universities. And so far, the universities are getting some criticism, but not very much.

I would say, the level of criticism should be raised and be made loud and clear to alumni associations and trustees. Otherwise, one hopes for a change of opinion perhaps from students. I find that students are much more reasonable and actually more tolerant than either the faculty or the administration. They may seem to be less tolerant, but that’s only because a small minority of them are protesters. Students can be riled up. But the students in my classes are much more reasonable than my colleagues and the administration.

JOHN LEO: Do you think the last few months have pushed people away from conventional campus liberalism?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: I think the rise of Donald Trump has not been helpful to conservatism. It makes the universities feel self-righteous and just confirms them in their uncomprehending and stagnant liberalism.

JOHN LEO: Is there anything else you want to say here ?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: All the universities face what you might call a crisis of the humanities–and that is the difficulty that the humanities have in defending themselves or explaining themselves where science is dominant. All knowledge today is taken to be scientific knowledge. And that’s true as against religion, but also against the knowledge that comes from study of literature and of humane topics. And this I think is the issue behind the flight from the humanities by students, from majoring in English and other literatures into fields concerned with moneymaking.

JOHN LEO:  So in response to this, the humanities seem unable to defend themselves and to explain why it’s good to be at a liberal arts university, why students should major in something else besides engineering, accounting or computing.

HARVEY MANSFIELD: That’s right. The humanities have come to be dominated by so-called postmodern thought. And postmodern really means against science and against the benefits or alleged benefits of progress and technology especially.

JOHN LEO: Let me ask you one last question. And that is, do you sense a rising disdain, if not contempt, for the West and the United States on campuses?

HARVEY MANSFIELD: Well, I do. That’s right. And the troubles we’re having over Islam, our inability to identify an enemy, and to move against it with determination. So, I do see that and it’s something we have to deal with.

5 thoughts on “An Interview with Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield”

  1. As Professor Harvey Mansfield’s advisee when I was a freshman at Harvard in Strauss Hall in 1954, I am fascinated with his political philosophy. Myself, I majored in English and Economics and got an EdD at Harvard in Research in Instruction.

    I look forward to tracking him down again and discussing The Atkinson Protocol, Platform and Palace: A Conceptual Framework based on the Organizing Principle of the scientific and functional analysis of the behavior of the whole brain, mind and body.

    Charles Atkinson, EdD
    Cambridge, MA 02138

  2. What would be really interesting would be to hear from Prof. Mansfield, who began his Harvard faculty career in 1962 when the current Left nonsense that has overtaken Harvard (and most of the rest) had not yet made it into even the dreams of the Left then, just how it was that the Harvard faculty and administration devolved to the point where the place is now essentially run by 18 – 22 year olds egged on by certain faculty and administrators. At what specific points and for what reasons did Harvard bring onto the faculty and into the administration the sorts of people who have, like termites, eaten away at its foundations, and why didn’t Mansfield and other sensible faculty then oppose these hirings with all their might? Surely Mansfield et al. could have foreseen the end result of allowing the academic health of Harvard to be ruined by the accretion of successive layers of propagandists masquerading as scholars in the efflorescence of X-Studies departments. That is a story that needs telling!

    1. You have asked the right question. The answer to it is, I think, that even the mildly liberal university faculties of 1962 had neither the foresight nor the spine to oppose radical appointments. These early appointees had the good sense to lie low until they perceived a shift in the balance of power toward their own beliefs. They then ruthlessly revealed their lust for power and shifted departments toward the radical perspective that prevails today. I am sorry to say that even Professor Mansfield has a curiously passive stance toward this development.

      1. The very actions you describe have been replicated at the highest levels of our “Democracy in America.” Past is Prelude and there is nothing particularly enlightening about stealing a young mind and having the persistence and patience to control and nurture radical views. Its been going on so long and is so insidious that we now have reached an election that produced the most extreme, disconnected candidates in modern times. The American Experiment continues.

  3. “This is a tone of superiority and of disbelief that reasonable people could hold a different opinion.”

    I argue that it often goes beyond this to disbelief that any sane person could hold a different opinion — and hence anyone who does must be insane.

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