Controversy About Kindness

September 27, 2011

I rarely think that what happens at Harvard is very telling about higher education; it’s a place too rarefied and too well resourced to tell us much.  But the opening of this fall semester has brought a controversy about ‘kindness’ that is worth our attention.

Members of the entering class were invited to sign a “Class of 2015 Pledge” with lists of those signing to be posted in each of the residence halls.  It has provoked quite a ruckus about whether “kindness” is a core value of the academy. Here is the text of the Pledge:

Harvard College Class of 2015 Pledge

At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows and Overseers that “each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society.”  That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts.  In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.

The Pledge has been a project of Harvard College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds, who is also the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies.  In introducing it to students, she noted the challenges of living together in a diverse community, and reminded them of Martin Luther King’s “beloved community” as something to which we all should aspire.

What could be controversial in this?  Isn’t “kindness” a universally admired virtue?  It is the last sentence in the Pledge that has especially sparked the controversy, because it holds up “the exercise of kindness” as co-equal with “intellectual attainment” in the purposes of the university.  In a letter to the Harvard Crimson, Charles Fried, a constitutional law professor, described the Pledge as “hilariously inappropriate and offensively coercive.” Virginia Postrel calls the Pledge “anti-intellectual.”

Harry Lewis, the Gordon MacKay Professor of Computer Science and a former Dean of Harvard College put the case against the Pledge in this way:

It is not a pledge to act in a certain way. It is a pledge to think about the world a certain way, to hold precious the exercise of kindness. It is a promise to control one’s thoughts. Though it refers to sound institutional values affirmed at Commencement, the pledge pretends to affirm them not through the educational process to which the Dean testifies, but through a prior restraint on students’ freedom of thought. A student would be breaking the pledge if she woke up one morning and decided it was more important to achieve intellectually than to be kind.

I make out three issues here:

(1) Should a university be committed to kindness as a primary value?  If we take the pursuit of truth to be the central value of a college or university, then we should take care in promoting other virtues that may come into tension with it.  Kindness may lead us to a certain restraint in dealing with others that undermines the pursuit of truth. Kindness would lead us never to say anything unwelcome to another, but sometimes (often?) the pursuit of truth leads us to voice ideas that may well be unwelcome.  Lewis is arguing that the Pledge undermines academic freedom.

This doesn’t mean that kindness isn’t an important quality for everyone to learn; it is only to say that colleges and universities shouldn’t try to do everything.  Kindness may be a virtue for families or churches to teach, but not institutions of higher education.

(2) Does a college or university have an obligation to teach moral virtues?  Should the pursuit of truth be the only value an institution of higher education upholds?   I sometimes hear that position advanced.  But I don’t agree.  For one thing, other virtues need to be promoted in order to pursue truth.  I believe we need to listen with care, to treat each other with civility and respect, in order to learn from one another.  We need to act with integrity, for example in the handling of evidence.

For another thing, we need to affirm that we pursue truth not simply as an end in itself but to “serve society,” as the first paragraph of the Pledge affirms.  There are moral virtues bound up in the ideal of service that a university needs to promote, though it needs to take care that the ideal of service doesn’t undercut the pursuit of truth.

(3) And finally, is signing a pledge an effective means of moral education?  Lewis doesn’t think so.  He notes that “Harvard has a deep and ancient antipathy to pledges and oaths,” and favorably quotes Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison that “Our founders knew from their English experience that oaths are powerless to bind conscience.”

Morison is right, but Lewis goes too far.  It can be useful, as newcomers join a community, to ask them to pledge themselves to a new and special set of values that will frame their conduct in that community — in this case a community of scholars.  The newcomers don’t necessarily learn those values in signing the pledge, but the pledge can be the beginning of their learning those values.  The question is what else does a college or university do to promote the learning of appropriate moral values.

At many colleges and universities, moral virtues are voiced as a student enters and voiced again as a student graduates, but too little is done in between to promote the learning of moral virtues.  I imagine Dean Hammonds introduced the Pledge on behalf of doing a little something more about learning moral virtues, but in focusing on kindness she picked the wrong value.

By the way, for splendid insight into “kindness” as a virtue, I urge reading of Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, On Kindness (Picador, 2010).

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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