Harvard’s Kindness Pledge

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.

6 thoughts on “Harvard’s Kindness Pledge”

  1. Like Gandhi’s opinion of Christianity, I think some kindness from Harvard grads would be a good idea. What I have come to expect is narcissistic confidence in their natural superiority and the assumption that they should lead and everyone else should follow. A kind public servant from Harvard would be as expected as a kind graduate of La Escuela de las Americas; both eminent institutions of higher learning in this country.


    1. Diego, I can happily point you in the direction of many kind public servants who are Harvard grads, from those who went into Teach First and stayed, to those who went straight into health and education charity work in the local communities they’d volunteered in for four years, trying to be the change they want to see. I’ve experienced kindness and compassion from all of them, and I know they channel it into their career paths. None of them are narcissists, but I suppose their jobs could all be classed as leadership roles in some sense. Perhaps you’ve just met an unfortunate subset, as I don’t recognise your picture as representative.

      Clarissa, I still want to know what prompted the whole ‘kindness pledge’ idea. Things like this are often a knee-jerk reaction to some incident, but I have no idea what! There was always a lot of kindness and generosity around when I was on-campus, but there was plenty of fervent debate to go around, too, in the community and in all the lit and language classes I took.

      I think political science might be an exceptional case here. Politics in the US seems so much more strained than here in the UK, and in order to maintain a harmonious house-life, sometimes it’s just easier not to discuss topics when opinions were so obviously entrenched (e.g. I would never bring up pro-choice/pro-life divides with close friends who were staunch Catholics because the only outcome would be both of us becoming exasperated). Perhaps what Professor Frieden is experiencing is a new unwillingness to enact the bitter political disputes seen in the media in their own classrooms? It’s a lot easier to disagree with a fellow student’s understanding of a film, suggest they’ve misunderstood the language being used, or are projecting their own concerns onto Jean de Lery; those thoughts and beliefs have probably not been ingrained into them by their parents and integrated into their moral and ethical paradigm like political ideas might have been!

      Tom Lehrer is awesome, also. 😀


      1. I still haven’t been able to find out whether there was a specific incident that brought this on. Honestly, I don’t think so. I believe this is an initiative of some earnest bureaucrat who wants to improve the kindness percentages on campus. I don’t think this can be blames on students in any way.

        As an educator, I can testify to the fact that getting students to participate in a debate is extremely hard. And it’s the same in the Ivies and here. They all want to record the right answer, memorize it and reproduce it on a test. This is a real problem, not the lack of kindness, whatever that means.
        Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T


  2. Fight fiercely Harvard, fight fight fight
    Demonstrate to them our skill
    Albeit they possess the might
    Nonetheless we have the will.
    How we shall celebrate our victory
    We will invite the whole team out to tea
    (Tom Lehrer – in case anyone didn’t know).


  3. I agree that this particular initiative is silly, but I disagree with you that kindness = “intellectually castrated universities.” Given that some college students are still literally being bullied to the point of suicide, perhaps an intervention emphasizing kindness is not out of place.


    1. Is it really going to help stop bullying to get the administrators to bully the students into signing pledges? If it were an initiative on the part of the students, that would be great. But that didn’t happen.


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