Harvey Mansfield: The Bradley Prize and a Critique of Harvard

The Kenan professor of government assesses his University.

Kenan professor of government Harvey Mansfield, a scholar of political philosophy who has long expressed his criticisms of what he sees as the prevailing culture and beliefs of Harvard and other universities (see "The 30 Years' War," from the September-October 1999 Harvard Magazine), has been awarded a 2011 Bradley Prize, conferred by the Bradley Foundation for work consistent with "preserving and defending the tradition of free representative government and private enterprise that has enabled the American nation and, in a larger sense, the entire Western world to flourish intellectually and economically." (Other winners this year include former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Tisch professor of law Richard Epstein, of New York University, and Allan H. Meltzer, University Professor of political economy and public policy at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business.)

Mansfield devoted his acceptance remarks on May 11 to an extended reflection on Harvard, the scientific era, political correctness, the role of the humanities, and more. The text follows.

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 all 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 am 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 the reticence was assured arrogance trying not to be condescending; now it is truly embarrassed and apologetic, humility fighting with pride. The pride comes from consciousness of merit and of desert because 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.

Now confidence in progress has 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, even 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 B.U. 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 B.U., but it doesn’t go if it is said—see the opening scene in the film Social Network. M.I.T. 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 small woman sophomore told me she wanted to do something amazing with her life. I looked at her appreciatively and tried to imagine another Alcibiades.

M.I.T. 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, faute de mieux, can be agreed upon. In its more thoughtful expression that principle is known as post-modern. What is modern is faith in science and progress, and what is post-modern merely comes after that—the modern then “still present as left behind.” Post-moderns do not 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 do not 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.




Sub topics

You might also like

Slow and Steady

A Harvard Law School graduate completes marathons in all 50 states.  

Claudine Gay in First Post-Presidency Appearance

At Morning Prayers, speaks of resilience and the unknown

The Dark History Behind Chocolate

A Harvard course on the politics and culture of food

Most popular

Claudine Gay in First Post-Presidency Appearance

At Morning Prayers, speaks of resilience and the unknown

Who Built the Pyramids?

Not slaves. Archaeologist Mark Lehner, digging deeper, discovers a city of privileged workers.

Harvard College Reinstitutes Mandatory Testing

Applicants for the class of 2029 must submit scores.

More to explore

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Capturing the American South

Photographs at the Addison Gallery of American Art 

The Happy Warrior Redux

Hubert Humphrey’s liberalism reconsidered