Harvard’s moral decay began decades ago
As a graduate of Harvard, I was more amused than surprised at its recent humiliation in the media. Its recently appointed President, Claudine Gay, appeared before a Congressional committee to explain why her university had not immediately repudiated calls for genocide of Jews and disciplined the offending students. She fumbled the ball: we believe in free speech … we reject bullying and harassment … it depends on the context etc, etc.
Dr Gay apologised afterwards; everybody apologised afterwards. But the damage was done. Her evasive words blew a gaping hole in Harvard’s famous motto, “Veritas” – truth.
“Truth, what is truth?” said somebody famous a long time ago. Are they still asking that question at Harvard?
I was a student there a very long time ago, and even then there probably weren't many believers in the faculty. There was one astonishing exception – Professor William Alfred, who was a bit like an American J.R.R. Tolkien, and like Tolkien, an expert on Beowulf. But he also wrote a long-running Broadway play, Hogan’s Goat. He attended Mass every morning at the local Catholic parish.
I wasn’t smart enough to be harmed by them, but I’d describe most of my lecturers as sceptical atheists. One of my professors was Michael Walzer, still a luminary of the American Left and an expert on “just wars”. Nowadays he is defending Israel in the Gaza War. I don’t know if he believed in veritas, but at least he believed – and still does -- in decency and thoughtful debate.
More typical, I think, was one of Harvard’s stars at the time, Willard Quine, a logician and “one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century” according to his obituary in the New York Times. I’m sure that he didn’t believe in veritas. Once Quine was asked by a journalist, “what is the meaning of life?” He responded:
"Life is algid, life is fulgid. Life is what the least of us make most of us feel the least of us make the most of. Life is a burgeoning, a quickening of the dim primordial urge in the murky wastes of time."
In other words: you cretinous moron, “life” has no “meaning”. That was the early 70s. Even then, veritas was not cool then at Harvard. Claudine Gay’s weaselly equivocations have been a long time in coming.
What accelerated the process between then and now was post-modernism. As a movement, PoMo seems to have lost its cachet, but it is the air we all breathe nowadays, not just at Harvard. It fills our nostrils and infects our dreams. Its foundation is that there is no veritas and that life is the bold adventure of navigating stormy seas without a chart and without a pilot -- and a non-negligible probability of drowning. With no theological or philosophical commitment to veritas, Harvard was defenceless. It was perfectly predictable that honourable agnosticism would succumb to moral anarchy.
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Ten years ago it became clear to me that even the basic decency of a man like Walzer was imperilled at Harvard, although by then he had decamped for Princeton. The University approved Harvard College Munch, a BDSM (bondage, discipline and sado-masochism) student club. The student newspaper, The Crimson, lauded this landmark as “an important movement toward tolerance” and “a mature approach to and acceptance of alternative sexual interests”. One of its members, Jill, explained: “I like being told that I’m a slut or good for nothing but sex”. The point is not that some Harvard students are certified imbeciles, but that University authorities had approved of their idiocy; Harvard had already lost its moral compass.
Munch seems to have disappeared, thank goodness. But it was one of many air biscuits contributing to the smog of moral decay hovering over Harvard. That’s why I was not surprised to hear that 34 Harvard groups had signed a letter declaring that they held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence” immediately after October 7. The corruption of individual souls had gradually metastasized into the corruption of their politics.
Last year a Harvard alumnus sent me a package. I unwrapped it gingerly – the Unabomber also went to Harvard, you know! – but it was a Harvard mug with the familiar Veritas shield. A very thoughtful gift. However, a closer look revealed that the shield actually said Veritas Christo et Ecclesia, truth for Christ and the Church. It turns out that this was the motto adopted by Harvard College in 1692. But as the university grew more secular in the 19th century, the words “Christo et Ecclesia” were dropped.
A pity, because the existence of God is the only sure grounds for truth, for veritas. Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, wrote in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “When God is regarded as a secondary matter that can be set aside temporarily or permanently on account of more important things, it is precisely these supposedly more important things that come to nothing. It is not just the negative outcome of the Marxist experiment that proves this.”
It is also proved by Harvard’s moral humiliation.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image credits: the Harvard shield on Widener Library / Nathan Forget on flickr
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