Harvard Long Gone

[This also appeared in National Review Online]

There was a time when Harvard stood for the Union. Almost 600 of its sons fought for the North in the Civil War, nearly one-quarter of whom gave their lives. Only the names of those Union dead are inscribed in the transept of Memorial Hall; the smaller number of Harvard affiliates who died for the cause of secession were not similarly honored.

But times have changed. In the current issue of the Harvard alumni magazine there is a profile of education professor, Howard Gardner, in which he declares: “The right wing isn’t just taking over the country, it’s shanghaiing all our values. If there’s a Republican administration after the next election, I would join in efforts for some sort of secession. It’s not the same country anymore.”

Keep in mind that these were not comments that spilled from Professor Gardner’s lips in an unguarded moment that were then exposed by “gotchya” journalism. They were in the University’s own publication that is used for promotional purposes. The profiles of faculty in alumni magazines are meant to portray the faculty and the University in a flattering light to generate support from alumni. Clearly, Gardner and at least some University officials believe that threatening secession conveys a positive picture of the institution.

Threats of secession or voluntary exile if the democratic process does not go one’s way are common among actors, artists, and others whose political opinions few of us take seriously and from whom emotional outbursts are expected. Our only disappointment with such comments is that these people almost never follow-through and just leave when they actually lose.

Gardner is supposed to be a more responsible person. He is, after all, an endowed professor at Harvard. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Prize. His theory of “multiple intelligences” is taught in virtually every education college in the country. Even if Gardner did not literally mean that he would man the ramparts if the Republicans win, such declarations demonstrate a fundamental break of allegiance that is shocking for a person of his position. What would make him, and officials at Harvard, comfortable threatening secession in the alumni magazine?

One possibility is that they think these comments actually appeal to the alumni. They are probably mistaken. While President Bush is no more popular among Harvard alumni than among other groups of east-coast intellectuals, talk of secession is almost certainly a bridge too far. The current student body and key alumni show no signs of wishing Harvard to stray into fashionable radicalism.

We know this from their reaction to the forced resignation of University President Lawrence Summers. Summers attempted to rein in some of higher education’s more extreme nonsense. In the wake of September 11 and shortly after assuming his position Summers called for a “rebirth of a national sense of community. And even a sense – and I’m using a word that I’m firmly convinced is used too infrequently in communities such as this university community – a greatly increased sense of patriotism.”

Summers took steps toward returning ROTC to campus. He held the line on academic standards against new, loose definitions of scholarship. He properly labeled anti-Zionist campaigns popular among Leftist faculty as thinly veiled anti-Semitism. For these efforts he accumulated enough enemies within the University that when he made an impolitic remark regarding possible explanations for the low number of women at the upper end of science, they were able to run him out of office.

Students and alumni did not support a repeal of Summers’s agenda. A poll of Harvard students showed Summers’s supporters exceeding opponents by three to one, with 57 percent favoring his retention and only 19 percent favoring his resignation. Alumni also expressed their disappointment with Summers’s removal by withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars in previously pledged gifts. Few of these Harvard students and alumni are Republicans, but neither was Summers, who served in the Clinton Administration.

Opposing talk of secession is not a partisan issue; it is an issue of patriotism. The Crimson have always served their country; sometimes by fighting for it, sometimes by working in government, and sometimes by critiquing what government does. James Conant, Harvard’s president during World War II, chaired the Nation Defense Research Committee that helped develop the atomic bomb, radar, sonar, and other inventions to advance our war effort. Harvard used to be a place for patriotism. But talk of secession is, by definition, unpatriotic.

Lawrence Summers tried to restore to Harvard the notion that patriotism and academia were not incompatible. Howard Gardner’s comments in the alumni magazine are an attempt to move the ball in the opposite direction. The newly appointed Harvard president, Drew Gilpin Faust, has not yet indicated the course she would like Harvard to take. Will Harvard once again stand for the Union?


One thought on “Harvard Long Gone”

  1. Things are never quite what they seem to be, are they:
    “The Gettysburg speech was at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history… the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached it. It is genuinely stupendous. But let us not forget that it is poetry, no logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination – that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in the battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.”
    H.L. Mencken

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