The official greeting of Harvard president Larry Bacow to the members of the Harvard Community — a typical welcome to new students, faculty, and parents — has touched a political nerve.
- Stina Chang, writing on the Asian-American news site AsAmNews picked up Bacow’s pitch to legislators to ease restrictions on international students who want to study in the U.S.
- Tom Ciccotta at Breitbart wrote, “Harvard President Larry Bacow is ‘Disheartened’ by Immigration Rules.”
- The Boston Globe noticed Bacow’s theme in an article headlined “Harvard President Denounces Trump Immigration Policies in Welcome E-Mail to Students.”
In his email, Bacow didn’t mention by name, Ismail Ajjawi, the Palestinian student admitted to Harvard who was temporarily sent home after landing at Boston’s Logan airport. NPR, among other news outlets, reported on Ajjawi’s plight. The furor over Ajjawi overshadowed Bacow’s greeting, as did the furor over Harvard having accepted $9 million in donations from Jeffry Epstein.
But I’d like to return to the greeting for the light it sheds on business as usual at the elite end of American higher education. The 900-word statement can be read in a few minutes, and it will slide by as easily as a hot dog at Fenway Park. But let me pull the bun away and subject the contents to a little closer scrutiny. Bacow says some pleasantries about summer vacation and quotes Nathan Pusey, Harvard’s president in 1957, to the effect that Harvard isn’t an island separated from the “broad concerns of men.” As Pusey saw it, Harvard was part of “the complex culture to which it belongs.” Check that word “culture.” Pusey also invokes what makes the non-island of Harvard distinctive, and in fact rather island-like: “richer, more vivid, more convincing, and more captivating than in society at large.”
Talking out of both sides of one’s mouth is an ancient Harvard tradition. “Richer?” No doubt, with its endowment at $38.3 billion, Harvard today is richer than society at large, but it was pretty rich in Pusey’s day as well—even if he wasn’t referring to material assets.
Rather, Pusey was speaking about “intellectual activity” as richer, more vivid, etc. Evidence for this is actually weak. Harvard does not stand out these days as a place of intellectual ferment. It stands out more as the bulwark of liberal orthodoxy. That’s fine. Harvard is free to be whatever kind of institution it wants to be, though it stands to be laughed at when it pretends to be something it plainly isn’t.
Bacow uses the Pusey quotation as a springboard to his comments on immigration. Here the vocabulary of the welcome begins to catch my attention. The welcome is addressed to “Dear Members of the Harvard Community,” and “our” community is mentioned five more times. “Culture” is invoked in Pusey’s 1957 message, as in “society,” and Bacow uses it again in the phrase “the society we serve.”
“Nation” in various forms crops up eight times, as in “national security.” Most of these are ominous, but in the next to last sentence, Bacow refers to “the finest traditions of this extraordinary nation.” The “world” is mentioned seven times, as in “talented people from around the world” and “different parts of the world.” In the same sentence as “extraordinary nation,” Bacow declares, “We must devote ourselves to the work of illuminating the world.”
I counted these words mainly to capture the flavor of Bacow’s thinking when he is, hand to brow, scanning the great horizon of who and what Harvard is. It is a community in the world that happens to be located in a nation. “Culture” and “society” come tangentially into the picture. What is completely absent is anything that connotes “civilization,” as in “western civilization” or “comparative civilizations.” Harvard once took this concept as central to its educational work. It has apparently fallen by the wayside, though it lingers in the names of some departments, as in “East Asian Languages and Civilizations” and “Archaeology and Ancient Civilization.”
There is food for thought in this observation. Why has civilization, especially Western civilization, slipped beneath the notice of Harvard’s current president? In considering the comings and goings of students across oceans and national borders, is “civilization” not a factor? Why do students from diverse parts of the “world” want to study in the West? In the United States? At Harvard? Might our civilization bear on their motives to travel so far and undertake the hardships of studying in a foreign culture?
Why is the concept of civilization so far from President Bacow’s mind when he is, after all, addressing a key question about civilization. How does higher education contribute to the making of intellectual activity that is “richer, more vivid, more convincing, and more captivating?” Is it not through the medium of civilization?