On Harvard Liberals

Harvard occupies a peculiar place in the American political spectrum. Browsing the conservative media and blogosphere, it takes almost no time at all to come across an article berating elite American universities as bastions of unchecked, militant liberalism. For many, this criticism extends to all (non-religious) colleges, or as surprisingly durable Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum called them, “indoctrination mills.”

In this view, liberal arts degrees, like those that Harvard College confers, encourage an unthinking rejection of tradition, religion, and the norms that hold a moral society together. Cadres of leftist professors preach radical identity politics and shelter students from opposing viewpoints. And they produce, the story goes, hyper-politicized progressives with diploma, hammer, and sickle in hand. President Nixon liked to call Harvard the “Kremlin on the Charles,” and many conservative Harvard students, alumni, and professors are quick to offer up some version of this critique.

Spend some time reading or talking to folks on the left, and you get a very different, though often no less critical, stance on these elite institutions, and Harvard in particular. To them, Harvard is the epitome of tradition and the establishment. An obscenely wealthy institution built by slaves, which inordinately profits off of fossil fuels and holds the dubious distinction of graduating the most future billionaires of any university, Harvard clings tightly to the status quo and molds its students to do the same.

If anything, these critics say, Harvard students are far too apolitical: even though most identify as liberal and vote Democrat, their version of politics is sitting in air-conditioned, wood-paneled classrooms, endlessly playing devil’s advocate as if nothing more than a grade were at stake. Far from revolutionaries or even activists, Harvard graduates file into the top ranks of institutions that perpetuate social inequities—be they on Wall Street, in the corporate world, or in government or nonprofits— and leave whatever “critical theory” they learned for cocktail party banter.

Perhaps it’s unremarkable that the left and right wings differ on, well, anything. But as a politically engaged Harvard student and, frighteningly soon, alumnus, I have come to see both of these viewpoints as useful for thinking about my own politics and the political ethos of this place.

Now, I’m rarely one to take a split-the-difference approach to politics, and I sympathize much more with the latter perspective than the former. Most Harvard students, myself included, arrive on campus with significant privilege. We are, on average, much wealthier than the typical American, and we grew up surrounded by others with similarly comfortable circumstances. Though I can’t speak for my classmates, I know I arrived on campus wholly ignorant of how much of the world works and how most people experience it. Were it not for the diverse, nontraditional perspectives of my “liberal” courses and peers, I could easily have graduated even more sheltered and myopic than when I arrived. Privileged perspectives are limited ones, and any college that does not compel its students to question them fails in its most basic social duty.

Left critics of Harvard students’ political inaction are also right that too many of us stop there. We can write convincing essays on the injustices of the world around us, yet we recoil at the notion of taking steps to change them. Despite my own activist involvements, I still find myself instinctively uncomfortable with loud protest. To a large degree, this reflects my stake in the status quo as a Harvard student, with achievements that our society rewards immensely. Yet for all my efforts to eschew privileged ideologies and empathize with others, I cannot separate my support for social justice from the constant critique, skepticism, and humility that brought me to it. Over my four years here, I have found that to be the case for most students: we support living wages and union rights, but the research on potential unemployment effects incites just enough doubt to keep us quiet. We recognize the crisis of climate change and have a great deal of sympathy for divestment, yet something in the back of our minds always says, “What if this will not work? What if there’s a better way?”

For most of us, the question is not just whether we care enough or are willing to take risks for others—though that is surely part of the story. Rather, our discomfort with the unrelenting insistence on a particular position springs from the intellectual humility to know that social change is complex and can have unintended, even harmful consequences. And though this may sound like rank, status-quo conservatism, it is in fact what distinguishes us liberals from the closed-mindedness that we criticize on the right. More than that, it reflects an awareness that chances for true social change come all too rarely, and thus that we should ensure that the changes we advocate can actually accomplish the goals we have set out. At its best, this caution is not a call for inaction or incrementalism, but rather an insistence on effectiveness.

Ultimately, the far right is wrong to characterize college liberalism a project of unthinking, brainwashed youth. On the contrary, I have rarely met an activist at Harvard unwilling to engage in critical dialogue or acknowledge the imperfections in their strategies. Social activism at its finest constantly asks questions, seeks new perspectives, and changes course when the facts so require. We Harvard liberals, myself included, must be more willing to join this debate on the ground rather than merely pontificate from the sidelines.

Yet the conservative hype does offer a reminder, if only by counterexample, to never abandon that skepticism that liberalism and effective social justice require. We must continue to build an activism that conflicts not with intellectualism but only with injustice, not because little is at stake, but because everything is.

Image credit: Wikimedia/Anshv

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