Principles That Don’t Change

"Principles That Don’t Change: Remarks on Accepting the Bradley Prize," City Journal, May 2011.


I want to tell you what it has been like to spend my life as a professor at Harvard, the most prestigious university in America, perhaps the world. In my time there, Old Harvard, a place of tradition with its prejudices, has become New Harvard, a place of prestige with its prejudices. What’s the difference?

There are two old jokes about Old Harvard: “You can always tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him much,” and “You will never regret going to Harvard; others may, but you won’t.” These describe arrogance, and of course the arrogance of Harvard men, not the women who are there now in profusion and force. With arrogance went a certain fastidiousness mocked in another joke: “A Yale man washes his hands after he goes to the bathroom—a Harvard man washes them before.” No doubt this one came from Yale, as it makes Yale represent normal male humanity in contrast to a studied, self-conscious few. This Harvard attitude survives today in the act that students call “dropping the H-Bomb”—that is, disclosing that you go to Harvard. Even I never announce that I’m a Harvard professor. I say that I teach. Where? In a college. Yes, but where? Around Boston. Oh, I see: you must be a Harvard professor.

In the Old Harvard, such reticence was assured arrogance trying not to be condescending; now, it’s truly embarrassed and apologetic, humility fighting with pride. The pride comes from consciousness of merit. It’s a reasonable pride. Respect for merit gives confidence that the inequalities resident in our democracy are the source of progress, rather than reaction and superstition. Call it meritocracy if you will, but it is better than any lack-of-meritocracy. This was the confidence of the Old Harvard, really not so old; it was the former, liberal Harvard that reigned before the late sixties. It reflected an acute case of the contradiction in our democracy: between the demand for ever more equality and the progress that results from the desire to make oneself better than others by competing with them.

Confidence in progress has now been replaced by postulation of change. Progress is achieved and can be welcomed, but change just happens and must be adjusted to. “Adjusting to change” is now the unofficial motto of Harvard, mutabilitas instead of veritas. To adjust, the new Harvard must avoid adherence to any principle that does not change, even liberal principle. Yet in fact it has three principles: diversity, choice, and equality. To respect change, diversity must serve to overcome stereotypes, though stereotypes are necessary to diversity. How else is a Midwesterner diverse if he is not a hayseed? And diversity of opinion cannot be tolerated when it might hinder change.

City Journal