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Harvard's Kindness Pledge

Posted by Josh Rothman  September 23, 2011 11:43 AM

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Kindness is a good thing -- but how do you encourage people to be kind? This fall, Harvard's administration has taken a controversial approach: They've asked incoming freshmen to sign a pledge affirming the importance of kindness.

The pledge requires students to "stand ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society... to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility." "As we begin at Harvard," it continues, "we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment."

Writing on his blog, computer science professor (and former Dean of Harvard College) Harry Lewis says that he finds the whole idea of a pledge -- even if it's a kindness pledge -- unnerving: Harvard, he notes, has historically taken a stand against pledges, which used to be quite normal at colleges, in the form of religious oaths; Emerson would have found the whole concept absurd. (Freshmen, Lewis point out, couldn't really choose not to sign: the original plan, now abandoned, was to hang the signed pledge in each dorm's entryway, putting uninterested students on the spot.) And Virginia Postrel, writing at Bloomberg Businessweek, faults the pledge for being banal and frivolous. Kindness, she points out, is hardly a civic virtue, and can actually inhibit critical debate; the idea of "intellectual attainment," she writes, reveals that "something has gone awry at Harvard." Attainment is just about good grades; whatever happened to "curiosity, discovery, reason, inquiry, skepticism or truth?"

Arguing on behalf of the pledge, meanwhile, are Erika and Nicholas Christakis, masters of Harvard's Pforzheimer House: "We live in an increasingly interconnected world and depend on one another," they explain. In the Harvard Crimson, Rajiv Tarigopula, a Harvard student, writes that the pledge is part of a worthwhile effort: "describing in words the ideal community."

It's quite a debate -- although anyone visiting Harvard's campus, especially during the super-sociable first few weeks of the year, might wonder if there's any population in the world less likely to require a pledge of civility and intellectual excitement than college freshmen. In the meantime, the administration has decided not to post the signed pledges in dorms, as it had originally planned.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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