The Corner

Harvard Cheats Itself

Who loses when conservatives are shut out of the modern university? Everyone. John Stuart Mill’s unsurpassed case for this view in On Liberty puts the liberalism of today’s academy to shame:

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. . . . The rational position for him would be suspension of judgement, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers. . . . He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. . . . Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. . . . If opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skillful devil’s advocate can conjure up.

Today, in the third and final installment of my series on the campus fossil-fuel divestment movement, I examine the debate at Harvard University prior to the decisive student-body divestment vote last November. It is a case-study in the illiberalism of the modern university.

Yet there is an exception that proves the rule. In a January 2013 op-ed in the Harvard Crimson, Nicole Levin, reconsidered her vote for divestment. A Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Robert Bryce criticizing the student referendum gave her pause. Reading Bryce, Levin realized that she had never seriously considered her vote for divestment to begin with:

I saw “fossil fuel” and I voted as any student who recycles when convenient has been conditioned to: in favor of divestment . . . . I did not think twice about the consequences of my vote or if divestment was even possible. I trusted that since I voted against evil, against fossil fuels, I had done right. Supporting environmentalism, the green movement, and divestment has become the norm, a social law that we obey at the risk of destroying the planet and upsetting Prius owners. We support them because we are supposed to, because green is good, oil is bad, four legs good and two legs bad. We are programmed to support the green movement without thinking.

It took only a single informed expression of contrary opinion to make Levin realize that she did not in any proper sense know the doctrine that she herself professed, that she had been led by authority and inclination rather than understanding. It is to her university’s shame that, although there is no need to invent genuine opponents of fossil-fuel divestment, none were present at Harvard. Or is it that none felt able to speak openly in the face of Harvard’s intellectually corrupting support for a politicized sustainability bureaucracy? Levin’s once taken-for-granted views on oil-company evil and her sense of having been programmed to hold certain opinions without thinking are the fruits of her university’s corruption.

David French’s apt remarks on the Crimson’s recent editorial chiding conservatives who criticize the university’s one-sided intellectual atmosphere come to mind here. Maybe the Crimson ought to be asking instead why conservatives so often leave Cambridge feeling that intellectual interchange at Harvard has been compromised. They might want to read On Liberty.

Nicole Levin has begun to know what she does not know. That is the most important step of all. She didn’t know that, according to some informed critics of divestment, alternative-energy sources can never keep pace with current world demand. And here’s something else Levin didn’t know. The sponsors of the divestment movement, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein, understand Bryce’s point quite well, even if they’d rather not tout it to their student followers. The divestment movement’s sponsors don’t want our energy supplies to keep pace with current demand. They want an end to modernity as we’ve known it instead.

Everyone loses when opposing views are shut out, not only because they fail to understand the doctrines that they themselves profess, but because the triumph of flawed and unexamined doctrines forces all of us to live with the consequences.