On February 28, the Harvard Crimson released an article advising people who may want to “insult” Harvard to “neither apply, enroll, nor graduate” from the institution. The article, aptly titled “Warning: Do Not Enroll,” admonished members of the political right who criticized the university’s liberal leaning as simply attempting “to curry favor with the more anti-intellectual members of our body politic.” In particular, it rebuked conservative figures such as Mitt Romney, Bill O’Reilly, and Ted Cruz for criticizing Harvard for being too liberal after having attended the university.
The article is bold, commanding, and clear. It also, however, goes too far.
Let me begin by saying that I understand the sentiments of the Crimson. Should alumni of Claremont McKenna College begin to “insult” or criticize my institution in a manner with which I disagree, I would be fairly irked. I love my college and the intellectual development I am privileged to take part in; I am fairly certain that the Crimson staff writers feel the same way towards Harvard.
In depicting and reproaching would-be critics of the institution as “anti-intellectual,” however, the Crimson may be sending a message eerily familiar to hyper-conservative groups. For example, the Facebook group “If you don’t like America then please don’t live here” declares, “Complaining about my country? Feel free to leave then!! … If you don’t like it, feel free to leave!” The group’s mission, moreover, is “To keep people who hate on this great country, of Yours and Mine, OUT OF IT!” Indeed, we are all familiar, to some degree, with impassioned demands of that nature.
We find such calls objectionable because they run counter the principles of free expression that support healthy democratic deliberation. Criticism does not merely serve as indicator of disapproval, but as a marker for improvement. As James Baldwin once remarked, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” As citizens, we should thus remain wary of requests for critics to leave the country.
As students, moreover, we should remain equally wary of requests for potential critics to desist from attending a certain academic institution.
Should we fail – should we become subservient to our passions as opposed to our reason – we may find ourselves in the tragic predicament where freedom of expression is maintained so long as students subscribe to the dominant perspective. We may no longer find ourselves reading articles titled, “Warning: Do Not Enroll,” but instead reading ones labeled, “Warning: Do Not Criticize.”
All of that being said, I do believe there is an alternative to urging would-be critics to desist from attending an academic institution: publically evaluating the veracity of criticisms.
I assure everyone that this is not a fairly revolutionary idea. In fact, this is actually what happens all the time with student magazines and newspapers. Should a person make an argument that members of an institution find to be distasteful or flawed, another person can make an argument in response and leave it in a student publication. I, for one, find this approach a tad bit more appealing than the one recently adopted by the Crimson. In fact, my belief in such an approach served as the basis my decision to write this article in the first place.
I believe that this approach is beneficial for academic institutions in two regards. First, it supplements the intellectual development of students by forcing them to respond effectively to the opinions of others in a reasoned and respectful manner. Such intellectual development thus allows students to gain new perspectives from others.
Second, it fosters a sense of inclusivity within the student body by demonstrating that it is, in fact, okay – nay, praiseworthy – to disagree with the dominant perspective at times so long as one has a sound argument.
While the Crimson’s sentiments are understandable, the message espoused by the article seems counterproductive. Instead of seeking to dissuade potential students from attending one’s university, current students should encourage the student body to evaluate the merits of a claim.
But it’s okay if you disagree. I’m open to criticism.