Virginia Postrel on Harvard’s Kindness Pledge

By on September 16, 2011

Author and FIRE Board of Directors member Virginia Postrel’s latest column for Bloomberg View covers the Harvard "kindness" pledge that all freshmen were pressured into signing this year (the signed pledges were to be posted in every dormitory—a plan that has now been abandoned).

FIRE has covered the problems with this pledge in several articles and blog entries, as has former Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis, but Postrel points out a new problem with making kindness king:

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."

There are advantages to this kind of politeness and kindness. But at universities, as Postrel points out, there are also drawbacks:

Kindness isn’t a public or intellectual virtue, but a personal one. It is a form of love. Kindness seeks, above all, to avoid hurt. Criticism—even objective, impersonal, well- intended, constructive criticism—isn’t kind. Criticism hurts people’s feelings, and it hurts most when the recipient realizes it’s accurate. Treating "kindness" as the way to civil discourse doesn’t show students how to argue with accuracy and respect. It teaches them instead to neither give criticism nor tolerate it.

To the extent that kindness involves avoiding unwarranted or unfair criticism of others designed solely to hurt them, it’s hard to argue against it as a value. But as Postrel points out, avoiding all criticism in a place dedicated first and foremost to learning can have serious drawbacks. After all, Harvard’s one-word motto is Veritas—"truth"—not "kindness." If kindness starts to get in the way of the search for truth and knowledge at Harvard, the university would be wise to reevaluate its priorities.

Schools: Harvard University