Yesterday students at Harvard University set up an encampment in Harvard Yard, protesting the university’s suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee earlier this week and calling for the university to disclose and divest from “all investments—both institutional and financial—in Israel, the ongoing genocide in Gaza, and the occupation of Palestine.”

The protest comes on the heels of similar actions at universities across the country and a fierce campaign of repression by administrators at Columbia, New York University, the University of Texas at Austin, and elsewhere; hundreds of students, faculty, and others have been arrested, forcibly removed from campus, and in some cases suspended. Hundreds of people rallied in the Yard—which has been restricted to Harvard ID holders since Monday, following similar moves by administrators at other universities—to show support.

Erik Baker, a lecturer in History of Science at Harvard and a former organizer with the Harvard Graduate Students Union, was among them. He delivered these remarks at a teach-in hours after students began gathering, reflecting on the meaning of this moment of campus activism.

—The Editors

One of the courses I teach is called “Science, Activism, and Political Conflict,” and one of my ambitions with that course is to show students that both of these things—activism and political conflict—are normal in science, and in academic life more generally. That’s a theme that we like to emphasize when speaking in “defense” of student protest. It’s part of a storied tradition, it’s respectable, it’s normal. But in order to explain why I think what you all are doing is so important, I want to start today by saying that actually, student protest is nowhere near normal enough in the history of higher education in this country. The real scandal is not that there has been student protest. It is that there has not been much, much more of it.

There was no student protest, for instance, when colleges in both the North and South financed their establishment and expansion with the profits of slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. That very much includes the Ivy League, and it includes this school of ours as well. “Slavery permeated almost everything about Harvard’s early history,” Sven Beckert said in 2022 after the release of the report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. Outside Wadsworth House you can now find a plaque commemorating four enslaved people—Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba—owned by two Harvard presidents, Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke, in the early eighteenth century. There were no student protests against their bondage. And if Titus, Venus, Bilhah, or Juba had revolted against their masters, we must imagine that Harvard authorities would have availed themselves of the violence of law enforcement to repress their resistance—one more crime, surely, for which today’s leadership would express regret.

There was no student protest at the Morrill Act of 1862, which systematized the practice of expropriating land from Indigenous nations in order to fund the establishment of so-called “land grant” schools around the country. If you walk a bit along the Charles River you’ll find one of them. The money that MIT and fifty-one other colleges raised from this stolen land is still on the books in their endowment funds today. Some of the land that MIT profited from was taken from the Dakota Nation in the new U.S. state of Minnesota. There, in the year the Morrill Act was enacted, in the midst of ongoing genocide, a faction of Dakota warriors killed several hundred civilian settlers and took several hundred more hostage. In response, the governor of the state, Alexander Ramsey, called for the Dakota to “be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State.” To my knowledge, there were no student protests at any of the land-grant institutions of the intensification of Indigenous genocide that followed.

There was also no student protest at schools like Harvard in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the life sciences at many elite universities became dedicated, in large part, to the study of eugenics and the alleged science of racial difference. Former Harvard president Charles William Eliot declared forthrightly in 1912: “There should be no blending of races.” Harvard Magazine itself has reported, accurately, that “Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university.” That article goes on to describe eugenics as “tragically misguided,” which I suppose is correct in one sense, although a considerable understatement. But in another sense it is wrong to call it misguided: Harvard’s eugenicists were mistaken about the science, of course, but they were right to see a commitment to eugenics as the logical implication of their most deeply held values and assumptions about the world. Their belief in innate, biologically inscribed hierarchies of human worth was not an innocent mistake but an expression of their view that the social hierarchy they benefited from was just and in need of active policing. Harvard students, at that time, were drawn almost exclusively from families already near the top of that social hierarchy and were anxious to cement their place in the American elite.

No wonder they didn’t make any noise about the abhorrent views that university leaders were expressing. That task fell to outsiders, including W. E. B. Du Bois, a Harvard alum banished for his radicalism from predominantly white higher education, and Franz Boas, a German Jewish anthropologist whose experience of anti-Semitism helped drive him to a broader rejection of scientific racism and the deployment of science for imperialist ends. In a letter of “vigorous protest” to the Nation in 1919, Boas spoke out against scientists who used their work “as a cover for their activities as spies.” Though he did not identify anyone by name, context made it clear that he was referring to a group of anthropologists revealed to have been spying for the U.S. government while doing fieldwork in Mexico, three of whom were affiliated with the Harvard Peabody Museum. In a meeting at the Peabody just days later, the American Anthropological Association voted officially to censure Boas.

The fundamental historical reality is that mass student protest—especially at elite schools like this one—is a relatively recent phenomenon and a product of the belated and incomplete diversification of American universities that began after World War II. All of a sudden there were students on campus who didn’t have any reason to accept their institutions’ historic commitment to oppressive hierarchies. In some cases, they even came from the very communities who were victimized by the violence that universities profited from materially and supported ideologically. And they revolted.

In December 1964, months of student activism at the University of California, Berkeley, reached a boiling point. Activists had been galvanized by participation in the civil rights movement that summer and sought to continue to organize for racial justice when they returned to campus, only to confront the university’s extremely restrictive policing of political speech. At the time, a law was still on the books requiring UC faculty, like other California state employees, to swear a loyalty oath, as a result of McCarthy-era crackdowns on left-wing thought throughout American higher education. On December 2, thousands of students occupied Berkeley’s Sproul Hall. On the front steps, where today there is another encampment in solidarity with Gaza, a student leader named Mario Savio delivered a famous speech. I’d like to read some of his words here:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

What stands out to me from this early period in the 1960s student movement is the pervasive feeling that students were placed on a kind of conveyor belt, that they were raw material in a factory that was producing a certain sort of person as its product: the compliant, complicit professional worker. Even student government, according to the founding manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society, had become merely “a training center for those who want to spend their lives pretending politically.” SDS leaders felt that, on the whole, “the actual intellectual effect of the college experience on the student is barely distinguishable from that of any other communications channel—say, a television set—passing on the stock truths of the day.” They blamed this development in part on the fact that “defense contracts . . . bring many universities into tacit cooperation with the interests supporting the arms race.” I think it’s important to emphasize that this is how students initially got interested in protesting the Vietnam War. They recognized that their universities were thoroughly entangled with the military-industrial complex, and that this entanglement was actively corroding the intellectual and cultural life of campuses. That investment in violence was a kind of spiritual poison. It circumscribed universities’ capacity for critical thinking, because it drew a line past which criticism would endanger the financial basis of university operations.

The way we narrate the 1960s campus antiwar movement today foregrounds specifically student activism. That’s as it should be: students supplied the movement with most of its energy and especially with most of its courage. Like we see today, students are often more willing than faculty to take risks for the causes they believe in. But I think sometimes a one-sided emphasis on student activism can reproduce a condescending attitude toward protest, framing it as an expression of youthful exuberance—as if there were anything wrong with that—rather than the necessary corollary of eminently reasonable political and moral principles. So I want to note that opposition to the Vietnam War—and to universities’ material complicity in the American-backed slaughter—transcended all boundaries on campus.

One leader was Richard Lewontin, a biologist who taught at the University of Chicago until 1973, when he moved here to Harvard. He stayed here for the rest of his career. He died in 2021, and I’ve been thinking a lot about him recently. Lewontin was a passionate anti-racist and anti-imperialist whose academic research in population biology helped dismantle the scientific myth of race. He participated in efforts to provide scientific, technical, and medical assistance to the beleaguered Vietnamese people, and in 1971 he resigned from the National Academy of Sciences to protest that institution’s alleged support for military research.

Lewontin was also a leader in the nationwide organization Science for the People, which involved a number of other Harvard scientists. The editors’ introduction to a special issue of Science for the People, a journal on militarism and science, sums up the group’s ethos well:

Science for the people means challenging militarism on many fronts. Science workers and the public need to be informed and to mobilize for the political struggle. They need to mobilize around specific technologies and research projects (e.g., “Biological Weapons”, and “Laser Fusion”). They need to mobilize in the weapons laboratories and at research centers. . . . And that struggle must be carried to its final stage: a fundamental transformation of the present political-economic system.

Science for the People published that statement in 1981. By that time the Vietnam War was over and the activist movements of the ’60s and early ’70s were in abeyance. One major reason was the coercive use of state power against these movements. Black radical leaders were murdered by law enforcement and incarcerated, and the National Guard infamously killed four antiwar protestors at Kent State University in Ohio in 1970. After this wave of repression, militant student activism came to be memorialized by universities as a relic of an earlier age that had now ended.

The official story now often seems to be that student protest taught universities a set of important lessons—about the need for diversity and inclusion, for instance—that, now that they have been learned, do not need to be repeated. University marketing now even frames past protest as an example of the kind of transformative learning experiences that students can hope to have if they enroll, although of course administrations today hope that students’ minds will be broadened in less disruptive fashion. In 2018, my undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University, held a ceremony to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of an action in 1968 when more than 100 Black students occupied the Bursar’s Office to protest the university’s complicity with white supremacy. The problem isn’t that such actions don’t deserve celebration: exactly the opposite. It is that integrating student protest into a self-congratulatory narrative of progress helps universities to obscure the fact that the issues students protested “then” are still alive and well, which in turn gives them cover to crack down on protests now. Don’t you know we’re better about all this stuff today?

I think that sometimes those of us involved in campus activism unwittingly internalize this narrative. We take inspiration from our predecessors but also feel on some level that we live in more enlightened times—times whose demands on us are less severe. The action we take is usually less drastic than the famous incidents of sixties unrest, as if our institutions today need only a nudge where those of the past required a shove. That is why I think the wave of action on campuses right now in solidarity with Palestine—so evocative of those widely memorialized images from the Vietnam era—is so important. It feels like a moment of collective recognition that the moral situation today is not less dire just because we live now and they lived then. We have spent months naming what is happening to Gaza: an atrocity fully commensurable with the great atrocities in which the United States was involved in the twentieth century, with support from companies that elite university endowments invest in. But it often seems—and I say this above all in a spirit of self-reproach—that we don’t really believe it, or else we would have reached the breaking point described by Savio, that point when continued participation in the machine becomes impossible and you have no choice but to defect. You all are showing that you do believe it. And that you understand that the reality of genocide demands refusal.

In the midst of the Great Depression, as fascism gained momentum and the world moved again toward war, a group of radical scientists in Great Britain attempted to organize their fellow scientific workers—to recruit them to the cause of revolutionary anti-imperialism. In my class, we read a book by one of them, the crystallographer John Desmond Bernal, called The Social Function of Science. There Bernal makes an argument that I think is even more important today than when he first wrote it:

The fact is that we are emerging from a period when war was a specialized task affecting a small portion of the community, and are now reverting to one in which every member of the community, tribe, or nation is primarily a warrior. Under modern industrial conditions war is no longer fought only by the men in the field of battle but by the whole national industrial complex. The indirectness of participation is a very convenient mask.

That is the mask with which Harvard hides its complicity with the American military-industrial complex and its investments in Israel’s war machine. And it is the mask that you all are threatening to remove. I hope you succeed.

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