More than any other university, Harvard lies at the nexus of American public policy, politics, and academia. Eight presidents have graduated from Harvard, and on Nov. 6, the nation will choose yet another alumnus to be commander-in-chief. Similar statistics hold for Supreme Court justices, senators, and members of Congress. For these astonishing numbers, the university’s engagement in the political world is far more remarkable and nuanced than just the decades-old education of our leaders.
Drew Faust publically supported the DREAM Act, the university recently submitted an amicus brief supporting affirmative action in Fisher vs. University of Texas, and Elizabeth Warren is running for Senate. Our fall issue explores the less appreciated aspects of Harvard’s presence in election 2012.
Harvard’s motto is Veritas, Truth, and Matt Shuham examines how it holds up when professors go to bat for political candidates. Niall Ferguson, Greg Mankiw, David Cutler, and others have moved between scholarship, punditry, and politics—sometimes to less than stellar peer reviews. Ivel Posada looks at gays in the Republican Party, starting with our very own iconoclast, Peter Gomes.
The Institute of Politics runs the pre-eminent poll on youth political views, and Ben Scuderi tries to figure out what millenials are thinking. Finally, we would not expect any less from Harvard students than to attempt to change the very way we vote and watch political ads; Andrew Seo digs deeper.
Harvard has long exhorted its students to “better serve thy country and thy kind,” but Wendy Chen’s review of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Chris Hayes ought to give us pause. The book details a society that is less mobile and an elite that is more corrupt than ever before. Meritocracy, he argues, inevitably poisons itself. And there is no doubt that Harvard lies at the heart of Hayes’ fatally flawed “cult of intelligence.”
These are not new charges. William Deresiewcz has written that Ivy League schools inculcate the belief that non-elites were “less good, less bright” and “weren’t worth talking to.” Test scores become identity, and intellect becomes entitlement: “they think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher.” If Harvard is in fact training our future leaders, then this entitlement only feeds Hayes’ self-serving meritocracy.
There are no simple rebuttals or solutions to Twilight’s larger critique. But, starting with Harvard wouldn’t be a bad choice. Let us not fool ourselves; one Harvard student blithely told The Crimson: “I mean Harvard is supposed to be like the symbol of American power.” Smugness and self-assurance run deep here. We’re often reminded of our talents, urged to change the world, with the expectation that we do.
To guard against that conceit, we should take Drew Faust’s 2012 baccalaureate address to heart: we are indeed extraordinary—extraordinarily lucky. Of the 120 million 21-year-olds on Earth, we wound up here. We owe parents, teachers, predecessors, history, and, above all, sheer luck. Meritocracy and hard work are no doubt part of the equation, but in short, we didn’t build that. Buying wholly into the story of meritocracy risks “forgetting the sense of obligation that derives from understanding that things might have been otherwise.” To forget about chance is to think that a Harvard degree entitles us to something—fortune, fame, comfort, health, happiness. Remember Faust: “luck is about never taking anything for granted.” Righting the American meritocracy is no easy task, but the work starts right here on campus.