Last year during a rally at Harvard Law School (HLS) to protest police brutality, a student organizer began a round of call and response:
What do we want? Justice!
When do we want it? Now!
But then he continued: “What will we do if we don’t get justice?” The response was: “Shut it down!” For many in the crowd, “it” referred to HLS.
Shutting down HLS would satisfy some dissidents. They charge that the school and kindred institutions are sites of pervasive racial, gendered, and class oppression that have proven stubbornly resistant to calls for change; that they are little more than finishing schools for prospective managers of the establishment; and that they mystify the ugliness of a social order that needlessly exacerbates misery in America and abroad. Kelley advances this critique, stressing “the university’s exploitative practices and its deeply embedded structures of racism, sexism, and class inequality.” Generally admiring of student protesters, he chastises them for failing to be sufficiently radical in their demands. Instead of seeking to make the university more welcoming to historically marginalized groups, such as African Americans, he wants students to transform the universities wholesale. How, he asks, “do we wrest our future from the university”?
I have taught at HLS for more than three decades. I am in the fortunate position of having alternatives; I am not trapped. I could pursue some other career and I could obtain a position at some other school. I am at HLS by choice and have thoroughly enjoyed my work here. In my experience, the institution is attentive to students, professors, and other members of its community. It encourages thoughtfulness, creativity, intellectuality, and the improvement of human existence. If by some miracle the predominant ethos of HLS were to become overnight the dominant ethos of the United States, America would be a remarkably better society.
If I believed that HLS fit the description imposed upon it by detractors whose views are similar to those of Kelley, I would not urge students to apply and would not congratulate them heartily when they are admitted. I would not invest my own time, energy, and emotion in a workplace that is deeply unjust. HLS has its problems, of course. But they are nowhere near as pervasive and malevolent as some claim.
We live in a world in which too many people are hostile to the modern, humanistic, cosmopolitan values of our great institutions of higher learning. These people sneer at intellectuality. They dismiss as effete, wasteful, even parasitical those who dedicate themselves to academic pursuits. They heap contempt upon “the ivory tower,” alleging its irrelevance to “the real world.” They abhor expending resources on what they see as highfalutin nonsense. They resent the independence, the demands for autonomy and freedom, upon which academics insist (albeit with varying results). The anti-scholarly, anti-intellectual, anti-academic forces have a disturbingly wide distribution. They broadcast their contempt from Fox News, state legislatures, and Capitol Hill. Against this backdrop, it is especially galling to witness progressive academics participating in the vilification of American higher education.
HLS contributes to social betterment by arming its students—a substantial number of whom are keenly attentive to matters of racial justice—with knowledge and analytical skills essential to grapple effectively with the complex problems that bedevil America and the world. This is true for many other colleges and universities as well. I advise progressive dissenters to use these institutions respectfully and collaboratively and desist from making them into enemies.