Harvey Mansfield’s Last Class

After 60 years on the faculty, Harvard’s famous conservative is retiring.

Montage of Harvey Mansfield at the podium with students in the foreground and the Yard in the background

Until almost the end, it felt like any normal day in Harvey C. Mansfield’s Government 1026 course, “The Political Science of American Democracy.” Students filed into a Sever Hall classroom for a lesson on republicanism, while Mansfield himself, the Kenan professor of government (dapper, as always, in a blue suit and crisp white shirt), presided at the front of the room. Questions were asked and answered; students curled over their notebooks or tapped out notes on their laptops. A few people crept in late, the door creaking closed behind them. 

But last Thursday’s class was not an ordinary one. It was not only the last meeting of the semester—but also the final class of Mansfield’s career. After 60 years on Harvard’s faculty, he is retiring at the end of this term. 

Mansfield first arrived in Cambridge in 1949 as a College student. After graduating, he spent a year in England on a Fulbright scholarship, and then two years in the Army, before returning to the University for his doctorate, which he earned in 1961. He returned again in 1962, after teaching briefly at Berkeley, and has stayed at Harvard ever since.  

It is a remarkably long run. On a campus full of long-tenured faculty members, Mansfield’s tenure is one of the longest (mathematician and Gade University Professor Barry Mazur has also taught at Harvard since 1962). Over the decades, Mansfield has been one of the University’s most prominent and outspoken conservatives: an adherent of political philosopher Leo Strauss and a strenuous opponent of feminism, multiculturalism, and affirmative action—the latter of which he viewed as a driver of grade inflation, which he also deplored (this claim has been disputed, though, and there is evidence that by the time black students began arriving in significant numbers, Harvard’s grade inflation was already under way). A hard grader, Mansfield earned the nickname “Harvey C-minus,” and in recent years became known for handing out two grades on each exam: the inflated—but official—one, and the one he believed the student actually earned. He has also been a sharp critic of Harvard and its prevailing culture and beliefs; he described the 1960s as a “catastrophe” for the University and the country. In remarks a decade ago, he quipped that the University’s unofficial motto ought to be “mutabilitas instead of veritas.” 

As a scholar of political philosophy, Mansfield has written, in more than a dozen books and countless articles and essays, about partisanship and political parties, the “essential” conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, the “little understood” elements of Machiavelli, and the theory of executive power. Perhaps his best-known book—and his most controversial, provoking substantial pushback—is 2006’s Manliness, a defense of traditional gender roles and a sometimes contentious rebuttal to what he decried as America’s “gender-neutral society.” 

Through his teaching and scholarship, Mansfield has also helped shape the thinking of generations of conservative figures. His former students include William Kristol ’73, Ph.D. ’79; James Ceaser, Ph.D. ’79; Alan Keyes ’72, Ph.D. ’79; Francis Fukuyama, Ph.D. ’81; Andrew Sullivan, M.P.A. ’86, Ph.D. ’90; and Tom Cotton ’99, J.D. ’02. 

  

Now 91, Mansfield has taught a version of this spring semester’s government course many times—usually as an undergraduate seminar revolving around “the two best books ever written on American politics,” he says: The Federalist and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. But this time he took a different approach. “I wanted to cover current topics like hyper-partisanship, big government, executive imperialism, affirmative action, and so forth,” he says. He enlisted three visiting scholars to co-teach the class with him: Assumption University political scientist (and its newly inaugurated president) Gregory Weiner; Dartmouth government professor (and New Hampshire state legislator) Russell Muirhead ’88, Ph.D. ’96; and Boston College political scientist R. Shep Melnick ’73, Ph.D. ’80 (who also co-chairs, with Mansfield, the Harvard Program on Constitutional Government). Muirhead and Melnick had both been Mansfield’s students. 

All four men were in class together last Thursday. Weiner conducted most of the instruction, leading an hourlong presentation on the limits of majority rule, the persistence of minority factions, James Madison’s questions and worries in Federalist 10, and the pursuit—still fraught, all these centuries later—of just rule in representative government. 

Afterward, Melnick rose from his seat. “This is Professor Mansfield’s last course,” he told the students. “You are witnessing a key moment in the life of Harvard University.” Fifty-two years earlier, he said, he’d stumbled into a Mansfield class as a freshman. “That proved to be a key moment in my life.…I want to say how lucky we were to have had Harvey Mansfield as a teacher.” 

Muirhead offered a tribute, too, reprising the semester’s worth of teachings into a five-minute monologue on the injustice and abuse inherent in majoritarian democracy (“this is a surprise, isn’t it?”), which both ancient Greek and early American political scientists recognized; and on the power of the Constitution to rescue democracy by giving it a “semi-formal” shape and set of rules that makes it “more far-sighted, not so immediate,” more temperate, more patient, also rational. “That’s what you know now, having studied the political science of American democracy,” Muirhead told students. Turning back toward Mansfield’s retirement, he added: “I fear there’s no other course in the government department at Harvard where you could learn that. It gives me some concern when I consider the retirement of our great teacher, Mr. Mansfield. On the other hand, it falls on us to carry this understanding forward, and it gives me hope that you’re here now.” 

  

Finally, Mansfield himself stood up to speak: “My job now is to finish the course, and to also finish my career.” The lecture that followed was characteristically wry and elliptical, drawing on his study of partisanship and juxtaposing two previous pieces of his writing: a 2022 Wall Street Journal essay titled “Should We Follow the Science Instead of the Votes?” and an article called “How to Understand Politics,” taken from Mansfield’s 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

The Wall Street Journal piece is a thought experiment on the idea of replacing elections with surveys (which, it notes, often fail to predict the outcome of elections). Summarizing the essay’s argument last week, Mansfield said, “Why isn’t the survey more accurate than the election? The election is chancy; it’s affected by the weather, for example…. A survey is scientific. It tells you the factors which determine the will of the electorate. Why isn’t the science better at making this judgment than the people?” 

His earnest answer to that tongue-in-cheek question can be found in the Jefferson Lecture, which explores the notion of thumos, which Mansfield borrows from Plato and Aristotle. Sometimes translated as “spiritedness,” he defines thumos as akin to the soul, an inborn “assertiveness,” he told last week’s class, a “desire that every human being has to defend himself, to explain himself as a defense, and to take umbrage” (thumos also makes a prominent appearance in the pages of Manliness). He argues that modern political science foregoes thumos and the soul for “self” and “self-interest,” ideas that are easier to categorize and pin down. When that happens, he believes, something is lost. “Survey science has to be quantitative,” Mansfield said. “That means it doesn’t care about your name…. But people have names. With their names, with your name, you resist being understood as an average. You resist being counted as if you were not important to yourself.” By trying to measure interest, he believes, political science fails to capture or understand opinion. Calling thumos “the basic, basic force in human nature, that explains partisanship,” Mansfield added, “We need a political science which is acquainted with thumos. And that means a political science that understands the human resistance to science, to be just taken as an item or counted in a large or even small number, without respect to your name and your self-importance, made anonymous, made objective.” The ancient political philosophers understood this, he said. 

Mansfield, who has studied political parties since his undergraduate senior thesis, told the students that he hoped to write a new book on partisanship, “if God gives me the time for it.” Then he glanced at the clock: 10 minutes past the scheduled end of class. He thanked everyone; they gave a standing ovation. “Thank you very much,” he said again. “My tears will come later.” 

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson

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