Reading about some ongoing Harvard controversies, programs, and initiatives recently, I was reminded of this short talk William James gave on June 24, 1903, at the Commencement Dinner after receiving an honorary LL.D. degree. It was printed in The Harvard Graduate's Magazine [the ancestor of the current Harvard Magazine] for September, 1903. I think it should be better known; it sounds very fresh and relevant to me today.
- O -
WHEN a man gets a decoration from a foreign institution, he may take it as an honor. Coming as mine has come to-day, I prefer to take it for that far more valuable thing, a token of personal good will from friends. Recognizing the good will and the friendliness, I am going to respond to the chairman’s call by speaking exactly as I feel.
I am not an alumnus of the College. I have not even a degree from the Scientific School, in which I did some study forty years ago. I have no right to vote for Overseers, and I have never felt until to-day as if I were a child of the house of Harvard in the fullest sense. Harvard is many things in one—a school, a forcing house for thought, and also a social club; and the club aspect is so strong, the family tie so close and subtle among our Bachelors of Arts that all of us here who are in my plight, no matter how long we may have lived here, always feel a little like out siders on Commencement day. We have no class to walk with, and we often stay away from the procession. It may be foolish, but it is a fact. I don’t believe that my dear friends Shaler, Hollis, Lanman, or Royce ever have felt quite as happy or as much at home as my friend Barrett Wendell feels up on a day like this.
I wish to use my present privilege to say a word for these outsiders with whom I belong. Many years ago there was one of them from Canada here— a man with a high-pitched voice, who couldn’t fully agree with all the points of my philosophy. At a lecture one day, when I was in the full flood of my eloquence, his voice rose above mine, exclaiming: “But, doctor, doctor! to be serious for a moment . . . ,” in so sincere a tone that the whole room burst out laughing. I want you now to be serious for a moment while I say my little say. We are glorifying ourselves to-day, and whenever the name of Harvard is emphatically uttered on such days, frantic cheers go up. There are days for affection, when pure sentiment and loyalty come rightly to the fore. But behind our mere animal feeling for old schoolmates and the Yard and the bell, and Memorial and the clubs and the river and the Soldiers’ Field, there must be something deeper and more rational. There ought at any rate to be some possible ground in reason for one’s boiling over with joy that one is a son of Harvard, and was not, by some unspeakably horrible accident of birth, predestined to graduate at Yale or at Cornell.
Any college can foster club loyalty of that sort. The only rational ground for pre-eminent admiration of any single college would be its pre-eminent spiritual tone. But to be a college man in the mere clubhouse sense — I care not of what college — affords no guarantee of real superiority in spiritual tone.
The old notion that book learning can be a panacea for the vices of society lies pretty well shattered today. I say this in spite of certain utterances of the President of this University to the teachers last year. That sanguine-hearted man seemed then to think that if the schools would only do their duty better, social vice might cease. But vice will never cease. Every level of culture breeds its own peculiar brand of it as surely as one soil breeds sugar-cane, and another soil breeds cranberries. If we were asked that disagree able question, “What are the bosom-vices of the level of culture which our land and day have reached?” we should be forced, I think, to give the still more disagreeable answer that they are swindling and adroitness, and the indulgence of swindling and adroitness, and cant, and sympathy with cant — natural fruits of that extraordinary idealization of “success” in the mere outward sense of “getting there,” and getting there on as big a scale as we can, which characterizes our present generation. What was Reason given to man for, some satirist has said, except to enable him to invent reasons for what he wants to do. We might say the same of education. We see college graduates on every side of every public question. Some of Tammany’s staunchest supporters are Harvard men. Harvard men defend our treatment of our Filipino allies as a masterpiece of policy and morals. Harvard men, as journalists, pride themselves on producing copy for any side that may enlist them. There is not a public abuse for which some Harvard advocate may not be found.
In the successful sense, then, in the worldly sense, in the club sense, to be a college man, even a Harvard man, affords no sure guarantee for anything but a more educated cleverness in the service of popular idols and vulgar ends. Is there no inner Harvard within the outer Harvard which means definitively more than this— for which the outside men who come here in such numbers, come? They come from the remotest outskirts of our country, without introductions, without school affiliations; special students, scientific students, graduate students, poor students of the College, who make their living as they go. They seldom or never darken the doors of the Pudding or the Porcellian; they hover in the background on days when the crimson color is most in evidence, but they nevertheless are intoxicated and exultant with the nourishment they find here; and their loyalty is deeper and subtler and more a matter of the inmost soul than the gregarious loyalty of the clubhouse pattern often is.
Indeed, there is such an inner spiritual Harvard; and the men I speak of, and for whom I speak to-day, are its true missionaries and carry its gospel into infidel parts. When they come to Harvard, it is not primarily because she is a club. It is because they have heard of her persistently atomistic constitution, of her tolerance of exceptionality and eccentricity, of her devotion to the principles of individual vocation and choice. It is because you cannot make single one-ideaed regiments of her classes. It is because she cherishes so many vital ideals, yet makes a scale of value among them; so that even her apparently incurable second-rateness (or only occasional first-rateness) in intercollegiate athletics comes from her seeing so well that sport is but sport, that victory over Yale is not the whole of the law and the prophets, and that a popgun is not the crack of doom.
The true Church was always the invisible Church. The true Harvard is the invisible Harvard in the souls of her more truth-seeking and independent and often very solitary sons. Thoughts are the precious seeds of which our universities should be the botanical gardens. Beware when God lets loose a thinker on the world— either Carlyle or Emerson said that— for all things then have to rearrange themselves. But the thinkers in their youth are almost always very lonely creatures. “Alone the great sun rises and alone spring the great streams.” The university most worthy of rational admiration is that one in which your lonely thinker can feel himself least lonely, most positively furthered, and most richly fed. On an occasion like this it would be poor taste to draw comparisons between the colleges, and in their mere clubhouse quality they cannot differ widely — all must be worthy of the loyalties and affections they arouse. But as a nursery for independent and lonely thinkers I do believe that Harvard still is in the van. Here they find the climate so propitious that they can be happy in their very solitude. The day when Harvard shall stamp a single hard and fast type of character upon her children, will be that of her downfall. Our undisciplinables are our proudest product. Let us agree together in hoping that the output of them will never cease.
The group of students who hung around the Aiken Computation Lab +/-50 years ago got together last February, and I wrote up an account of our collective memory for Harvard Magazine. There was a lot going on scientifically in a remarkably supportive and creative atmosphere, even though we were by no means a tier 1 CS program in those days. I have done my best to explain it here, but those of you who know what kind of atmosphere I always hoped for at Harvard may understand best what I am talking about. Hope you enjoy it!
I used to visit Hong Kong regularly, and also made a few trips to mainland China. One of those trips put me in a provincial Chinese city on the morning of June 4, 2009, a day that seemed to be like any other when I awakened. After breakfast I flew to Hong Kong, where the people were afoot by the thousands. That night I attended the massive gathering in Victoria Park commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre.
In 2013 I wrote several posts about the expansion of liberal arts colleges and universities into nations under authoritarian rule, for example The Charade of Liberal Arts Campuses in Authoritarian States. In a word, I couldn’t imagine how one would teach the Declaration of Independence in a country where political protest is suppressed, nor how to teach gender studies in a place where homosexuality is illegal. The professors would surely be tagged as enemies of the state and students who chose to study such texts would be put under surveillance. I observed that American universities were starting to self-censor in order to live peacefully with their authoritarian host countries in the East.
But Hong Kong was a free city. I lectured on liberal education at universities there and advised Hong Kong U on its Common Core curriculum. I made friends there, and the academics took seriously their mandate to make the “two systems” philosophy work. Occasionally some stooge of the mainland government would make his presence known at a talk I was giving, but for the most part the audience behaved the way I expect college audiences to behave.
Then came the passage a few weeks ago of the “The Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” (Link here to a Canadian site with the English language text of the law.) It is impossible to overstate the scope and significance of this law. The four offenses are described as “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorist activities,” and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security,” each with a broad definition and a broadening rider, for example: “A person who incites, assists in, abets or provides pecuniary or other financial assistance or property for the commission by other persons of the offence under Article 22 of this Law shall be guilty of an offence.” Penalties are up to life imprisonment. The whole law is to be administered by a special force, not by Hong Kong police.
And there is more. Companies that violate the law can be shut down. Turning in others may lighten your sentence. You don’t have to be in Hong Kong to commit an offense under the law. In fact, most ominously, “This Law shall apply to offences under this Law committed against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region from outside the Region by a person who is not a permanent resident of the Region.”
I am terrified for my Hong Kong friends. Some are among the most courageous people I know, having worked for years to document the misdeeds of the Chinese Communist Party in the face of extreme efforts to rewrite history, for example the June 4 history mentioned above. One Hong Kong U professor, Benny Tai, has already lost his job because he participated in protests last year.
“Implementation rules” for the new law provide for searches (even warrantless searches), preventing people from leaving Hong Kong if they are under investigation, and so on.
To be sure, I will never go back to Hong Kong. Probably just discussing June 4 in this blog post is enough to trip one or more of the very flexible criteria laid out in the law.
But the reason I am blogging today is to ask how American universities will respond. Books started disappearing from Hong Kong libraries almost immediately after the law was enacted, as the ABC news report demonstrates.
Can Chinese students in the US read those books in an American university library? Well, they can, but will a professor who assigns them be putting those students under threat of arrest when they return home?
But that is not the big problem this year. Most instruction in American universities will be “remote” this year, taking place over the Internet. Many students will be at home. There won’t be any international first year undergraduates, but there will, I imagine, be Harvard undergraduates physically in Hong Kong or on the mainland taking Harvard College courses for credit. All their readings will have to go through Chinese censorship—either the well-known Internet censorship of the mainland, or anticipatory censorship like that already taking place in Hong Kong libraries.
British universities are facing the same challenge, and according to the BBC, have made a very straightforward and yet strange decision:
The pilot project involves four Russell Group universities - King's College London, Queen Mary University of London, York and Southampton - and is run by JISC, formerly the Joint Information Systems Committee, which provides digital services for UK universities.
China's internet censorship means that some websites are filtered or blocked - and there have been concerns that students in China could not study online, such as clicking on an embedded link in a scholarly article.
The technical solution, provided free by the Chinese internet firm Alibaba Cloud, creates a virtual connection between the student in China and the online network of the UK university, where the course is being taught.
But a spokeswoman for JISC says Chinese students will not have free access to the internet, but will only be able to reach "resources that are controlled and specified" by the university in the UK.
Any online information used in these UK university courses will have to be on a "security 'allow' list, which will list all the links to the educational materials UK institutions include in their course materials", said JISC.
Would Harvard agree to conditions like that? I hope not. But if not, how are undergraduates in Hong Kong or the mainland going to take courses in, say, Chinese history, or comparative politics? How, for that matter, could they read and discuss poetry about civil rights and personal freedom? How could they read English literature, 1984 for example? How could they read the founding philosophical texts of the Enlightenment, which laid the philosophical premise for the right of the American colonies to break away?
I have heard no discussion of these questions. At Harvard, there are any number of individuals who might comment but have not, as far as I am aware. The Vice Provost for International Affairs is a senior Chinese historian. The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies is headed by another senior Chinese historian. The chairman of the China Fund is a professor of Chinese studies who also holds a professorship in the Business School and was formerly the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Harvard’s president has won acclaim for his public statements and actions on DACA and on ICE policy changes. Other universities seem no more outspoken.
Perhaps no one is commenting because everyone is tied up worrying about other things. To be sure, Covid-19 has created threats to universities that demand immediate attention. Still, one can’t help wondering if the large footprint of China in American universities may be making them cautious about antagonizing the Chinese government. What was once seen as an opportunity for universities to become global institutions may have rendered some of them so dependent on Chinese students, donations, and hosting arrangements that their business interests are tempering their voices, even as their academic counterparts in Hong Kong are losing their jobs and those at top mainland universities are being imprisoned and fired. Follow the money.
As I wrote seven years ago, you can’t offer a liberal education in an authoritarian state. And that is exactly what Harvard and other American universities would be trying to do if they offer their own courses, unadulterated, to students in China. Or Hong Kong. They would be putting both their students and the institutions themselves at risk of criminal sanctions. With all the varied collaborations American universities have with China, would they imperil themselves and their students? But if not, what choice do they have?
It is a tragedy for Hong Kong. But the loss to the future of global freedom is even greater. There was a time when students came to the US and learned here how free societies think about themselves and how they translate those ideals into governance structures. Even without the illiberal trends in the US, those days seem to be ending, as both the US and China become more nationalistic.