Less than Zero

Claudine Gay, President of Harvard, who appeared before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on December 5, drew harsh criticism, mostly from the right, mostly for her wishy-washy response to the question “Do calls for genocide against Jews violate Harvard rules of conduct?”

Ultimately, she answered in the affirmative, but only after some serious waffling and squirming, in a tone of voice that suggested she really, really did not like having to say it.

As a clarification, she also stated that “[Harvard] embrace[s] a commitment to free expression, and give[s] a wide berth to free expression even of views that are objectionable, outrageous and offensive . . .” An ironic assertion, given Harvard’s ranking by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE,) which publishes an annual rating of US colleges, based on their support of free speech and open inquiry.

Of 248 institutions assessed, Harvard came in dead last, with an overall ranking so poor that the Foundation had to invent a whole new category to summarize it (“abysmal.”) Which is, coincidentally, the descriptive many folks would apply to Gay’s performance before the Committee.


OK Scott, what’s the point?

Well, to begin with, it wasn’t all that long ago that institutions of higher education were expected to promote free inquiry, not discourage it. No gray area there. Open debate, marketplace of ideas, that sort of thing. It’s a tradition dating back centuries, and a very important one at that. In fact you might call it a cornerstone of Western civilization. Open inquiry, academic freedom–call it what you will–a radical concept when it came into being less than 500 years ago, is largely responsible for making the modern world.

Without open inquiry, the Renaissance and all that flowed from it would not have happened. We might still be living in feudal societies, stuck in a rut without end, mired in generational poverty and ignorance, our lives governed by superstition and the capricious dictates of tyrants.

We are where we are, developmentally speaking, because of the breakthroughs made by our forebears. But without those critical forward leaps, history would have taken a very different path.

So here we have an American University system abandoning this revered tradition. And not just any University, mind you, but this country’s most prestigious, by any measure. The pinnacle of American higher education, renowned across the globe, has intentionally taken a giant step backwards, ironically, under the banner of Progressivism.

As for Gay herself, you would think that the President of one of the world’s most important educational institutions would be a pretty impressive person, with a mind like a force of nature and a personality to match. You know, the kind of person who fills the room with light and energy simply by entering it. That’s what you would think.

What was surprising was how un-impressive she was, how remarkably unremarkable. She had less charisma than your average chatbot. Aggressive, militant hairdo above an expressionless face, ice-cold eyes, affect flat as a tabletop, a colorless and featureless creature of the bureaucracy. She bobbled simple yes-no questions. She stonewalled. She seemed annoyed by the whole thing, as though it were beneath her.  “THIS is the BEST they can do?” you wonder, rhetorically.

As if that weren’t enough, Internet sleuths quickly turned up dozens of examples of academic dishonesty in her conspicuously slim body of written work, including plagiarism, hiding in plain sight for years. Serious violations that would have ended your career or mine. But her comrades circled the wagons and voted as one to make it go away. It was news for about 5 minutes before being disappeared.

Rules for me; rules for thee.

If there is a takeaway, it’s that American higher education has lost the plot. It’s WAY out there in the weeds right now, doesn’t even know it, and wouldn’t have a clue how to get back even if it did.

God help us.

© 2024 by Scott P. Snell

Right of reuse is freely granted with proper attribution.

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