I want to tell you what it has been like to spend my life as a professor at Harvard, the most prestigious university in America, perhaps the world. In my time there, Old Harvard, a place of tradition with its prejudices, has become New Harvard, a place of prestige with its prejudices. What’s the difference?
There are two old jokes about Old Harvard: “You can always tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him much,” and “You will never regret going to Harvard; others may, but you won’t.” These describe arrogance, and of course the arrogance of Harvard men, not the women who are there now in profusion and force. With arrogance went a certain fastidiousness mocked in another joke: “A Yale man washes his hands after he goes to the bathroom—a Harvard man washes them before.” No doubt this one came from Yale, as it makes Yale represent normal male humanity in contrast to a studied, self-conscious few. This Harvard attitude survives today in the act that students call “dropping the H-Bomb”—that is, disclosing that you go to Harvard. Even I never announce that I’m a Harvard professor. I say that I teach. Where? In a college. Yes, but where? Around Boston. Oh, I see: you must be a Harvard professor.
In the Old Harvard, such reticence was assured arrogance trying not to be condescending; now, it’s truly embarrassed and apologetic, humility fighting with pride. The pride comes from consciousness of merit. It’s a reasonable pride. Respect for merit gives confidence that the inequalities resident in our democracy are the source of progress, rather than reaction and superstition. Call it meritocracy if you will, but it is better than any lack-of-meritocracy. This was the confidence of the Old Harvard, really not so old; it was the former, liberal Harvard that reigned before the late sixties. It reflected an acute case of the contradiction in our democracy: between the demand for ever more equality and the progress that results from the desire to make oneself better than others by competing with them.
Confidence in progress has now been replaced by postulation of change. Progress is achieved and can be welcomed, but change just happens and must be adjusted to. “Adjusting to change” is now the unofficial motto of Harvard, mutabilitas instead of veritas. To adjust, the new Harvard must avoid adherence to any principle that does not change, even liberal principle. Yet in fact it has three principles: diversity, choice, and equality. To respect change, diversity must serve to overcome stereotypes, though stereotypes are necessary to diversity. How else is a Midwesterner diverse if he is not a hayseed? And diversity of opinion cannot be tolerated when it might hinder change.
In the same way, choice in our curriculum is displayed in a dizzying array of courses that make it easy for students to indulge their whims and protect their leisure. Choice is best when it does not produce devotion and leaves one’s options open. A devoted student makes himself unready for change. Respect for merit remains, but it wavers and yields to the conventions of flattened self-esteem in which everyone is entitled to a point of view—and, need I add, a high grade. Thus equality is prized not because equality is good, but because nothing is good. Harvard is not so great either, though it’s not so bad. Perhaps our embarrassment at being there is sincere? No, that’s unlikely. But Harvard no longer believes in itself and has acquired a strong sense of guilt for its pretensions. What about its prestige? Harvard will hold on to that, because it can be used to deflate its pretensions.
In the Boston area, Harvard and Boston University are the most prominent universities. Harvard is trendy but not flashy, and BU is flashy but not trendy (at least, it was under—and I mean under—its former president, the redoubtable John Silber). It goes without saying that Harvard is superior to BU, but it doesn’t go if it is said—see the opening scene in the film The Social Network. MIT is a university of high repute and low profile. Students there work much harder than Harvard students, and the pressure they respond to comes from a demanding faculty. At Harvard, the challenge comes not from the faculty, but from one’s fellow students, most of them not niche-seekers or future bureaucrats but inventive in schemes of ambition. Just last week, a sophomore told me that she wanted to do something amazing with her life. I looked at her appreciatively and tried to imagine another Alcibiades.
MIT is different because it is devoted to science, which means to unlimited advance in science. Unlimited advance is heedless advance—heedless of whether science is good for us as human beings. The failure to ask this question is characteristic of our universities today, though not so much of our society, or those parts of our society where the sacred still survives. For some reason, the human is best respected in company with the sacred, humanity with divinity.
To scientists, the university is divided into science and non-science; the latter is not knowledge and is likely to be mush (in this last they are right). Scientists easily forget that science cannot prove science is good, that their whole project is founded upon what is at best unscientific common sense. They do not see that the unscientific foundation of science leaves science far short of wisdom, whether practical or theoretical. Science has no idea why human beings resist science at least as strongly as they embrace it. It cannot say why knowledge is better than prejudice.
It is the job of the humanities to make non-science into something positive that could be called human in the best sense. This crucial work, which is necessary to science and, may I add, more difficult and more important than science, is hardly even addressed in our universities. Leading this trend—“leading from behind” in a recent phrase—is the humanities faculty at Harvard, and to give credit where credit is due, at other comparable universities. They are the ones who have established change as the principle that, for lack of anything better, can be agreed upon. In its more thoughtful expression, that principle is known as postmodern. What is modern is faith in science and progress, and what is postmodern merely comes after that—the modern then “still present as left behind.” Postmoderns don’t have the courage to attack, much less abandon, science and its numerous benefits; so they merely accept them, and let their ill grace serve as a sign of bad conscience.
When there is no basis for what we agree to, it becomes mandatory that we agree. The very fragility of change as a principle makes us hold on to it with insistence and tenacity. Having nothing to conform to, we conform to conformism—hence political correctness. Political correctness makes a moral principle of opposing, and excluding, those of us who believe in principles that don’t change.
The few honors I have had—I’m not asking for more; how could they compare to this one?—have come from Republican presidents and conservative foundations. All major universities and the political-science profession have very thoughtfully not disturbed my quiet or done anything to stir my gratitude. After all, it’s a free country, and I’m thankful for that, as I am for the signal distinction I receive tonight.