That’s what Virgina Postrel asks, in effect (“Harvard Pledge Values ‘Kindness’ Over Learning“):
When the members of the class of 2015 arrived at Harvard College this fall, they encountered a novel bit of moral education. Their dorm proctors — the grad students who live with freshmen to provide guidance and enforce discipline — invited each student to sign a pledge developed by the Freshman Dean’s Office. It reads, in full:
“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.”…
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….
Consider a common argument in favor of the pledge. It starts with a survey last spring in which then-freshmen were asked to indicate how they believed Harvard ranked various values, and then to do the same ranking for themselves….
Where in the list of ranked values are curiosity, discovery, reason, inquiry, skepticism or truth? (Were these values even options?) Where is critical thinking? No wonder the pledge talks about “attainment.” 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.
Harvard is the strongest brand in American higher education, and its identity is clear. As its students recognize, Harvard represents success. But, it seems, Harvard feels guilty about that identity and wishes it could instead (or also) represent “compassion.” These two qualities have a lot in common. They both depend on other people, either to validate success or serve as objects of compassion. And neither is intellectual.
Harvard’s emphasis on “kindness” reminds me that empathy is overrated:
[T]here is a crying need for unsociable introverts, who tend (more than other types) to be thinkers, strivers, organizers, defenders, and justice-dispensers. If we did not exist, the world would be full of ill-fed, ill-housed, untutored savages. I suspect that their vaunted empathy would not survive the stress of existence and coexistence.