I just found out about Harvard’s silly attempt to make its freshmen sign a “kindness pledge” and I haven’t been able to stop laughing ever since. The text of the pledge was going to be posted at the entrance to each dorm. It was supposed to contain the names of the students living in that particular section of the dorm and offer a space for each student’s signature. This, of course, means that the people who didn’t feel like participating in this exercise in inanity would be easily identifiable.
Here is the text of the pledge for your reading pleasure:
“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 par with intellectual attainment.”
The problem with this attempt to bully students into exercising kindness (aside from the incredibly constipated language) is that will make them even less likely to engage in any kind of more or less vigorous debate than they are already. As it is, they had to grow up in a culture where tolerance for any kind of opinion, even one that is completely baseless, ridiculous and offensive, is mandated:
Meanwhile, to their peers, Harvard students may, if anything, be a little too nice. Some veteran faculty members tell me that the students’ drive to succeed manifests itself in a surprising way. A social norm has emerged, they report, in which students avoid saying anything that might make others look bad in class, even if that restraint means stifling discussion.
“I note in the current generation of undergraduates a tendency to hold back on disagreement or criticism of other students in class,” says Jeffry Frieden, a political scientist. “They’re much more respectful of each other — much more than when I was an undergraduate. If someone states an opinion, even if absurd, they take it in stride.”
Vigorous debate, disagreement and forcefully expressed opinions scare university administrators so much that soon we will be left with intellectually castrated universities where intellectual activity will be substituted with kindness pledges and celebrations of difference for the sake of difference.