On the Harvard “Kindness Pledge”

There is a certain species of commentator who cannot resist a storyline I would call “Inconsequential Things Happening at Ivy League Universities.”  Along those lines, Virginia Postrel objects to this pledge that Harvard freshmen had the option to sign:

At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows, and Overseers that “each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society.” That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.  As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.

Postrel states that Harvard students are already kind and in fact they’re really too nice, because Jeffrey Frieden and some other unnamed Harvard faculty say that students won’t argue with each other in class.  And, doing her best dime-store Allan Bloom, Postrel centers on the phrase “intellectual attainment” and argues:

Attainment equals study cards and good grades—a transcript to enable the student to move on to the next stage. Attainment isn’t learning, questioning or criticizing. It’s getting your ticket punched.

I suppose that depends on what is being “attained.”  But leave that aside.  Basically, what we have at Harvard is an extremely bright group of students attending arguably the best university in the world.  What possible difference does it make whether they pledge to be kind?  Postrel says “something has gone awry at Harvard.” I guarantee you that nothing is awry at Harvard on account of this pledge.  I guarantee you that its graduates will, on average, go on being smart people who generally lead successful lives and, in some if not most cases, populating an elite stratum of American society.

So the pledge really doesn’t matter.  But let’s just take its text at face value.  Then I must ask: is kindness really so irrelevant to the goals of a university?  It strikes me that the bulk of the socialization that goes on in universities is not intellectual or scholarly; it is instead emotional and social.  And so how college students treat each other is important.

But then we get to Postrel’s argument that basically Harvard students are already pretty kind.  I have no idea whether that’s true, but it is more relevant to ask: “Could they be kinder?”  And the answer for Harvard students, for any of us, is “yes.”

The saddest I have ever been about college student life was when I got an email from a student asking me allow her to postpone an exam because someone had written something about her on a campus gossip website and she had been too upset to leave her room for 3 days.  As I do with all the stories I hear about postponing exams, I checked this one out. I realized that she was probably talking about a website called Juicy Campus, which had been in the news and which allowed people from colleges or universities to post anonymous things about their classmates. So I went to this website.  She was telling the truth.  Someone had named in her in a discussion thread about which women from a particular sorority were the biggest sluts.

Maybe this was an extreme case.  But more garden-variety kinds of shunning and gossip go on all the time.  So although I don’t think a “kindness pledge” will change much, I have a hard time seeing it as a silly or misguided idea.

4 Responses to On the Harvard “Kindness Pledge”

  1. RobC September 19, 2011 at 12:25 pm #

    You make good points, John. May I respectfully suggest that the beneficial effect of the Harvard kindness pledge could also be applied to faculty members–perhaps a pledge that they will be kind toward others and also tolerant of opinions with which they disagree. Perhaps some will say that faculty members are already kind and tolerant. No doubt that’s true, but in your own words, it’s more relevant to ask, “Could they be kinder?” Could they be more tolerant?

    I’m hoping you’ll be the one who proposes a faculty kindness and tolerance pledge at GW. Are you on board?

  2. John Sides September 19, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    RobC: As a kind member of the GW faculty, I will of course tolerate your suggestion that I propose such a pledge.

  3. Andrew Gelman September 19, 2011 at 9:20 pm #


    I agree with you (of course), but how did you hear about that article in the first place? I didn’t know anyone actually read Business Week.

  4. LFC September 20, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    I agree that the pledge doesn’t really matter but there’s no harm in it. It arguably does reflect certain changes in (US) society and higher education that have taken place in recent decades, e.g. more concern about civility, more attention to the ‘moral’ dimensions of education, and more willingness on the part of university officials to adopt a somewhat paternalistic tone. At the same time, it is hard not to see all this talk of “moral compass” and “serving society” as largely going in one ear (of students) and out the other. At Commencement, new Harvard graduates are told that they stand ready “to serve society”. Some of them will indeed serve society in various ways. Others will go to Wall St. and make lots of money. The individuals’ choices would likely be pretty much the same if they had never heard this official talk about a “moral compass”. (On the other hand, a course like Sandel’s ‘Justice,’ which thousands of Harvard students have taken, may actually have had some impact, direct or indirect, on the career paths/aspirations/’moral compasses’ of at least a few students. But that’s a different issue.)