Harvard’s Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman has managed to circumvent the brouhaha he created last year with his “kindness pledge.” To recap: In the fall of 2011 Dean Dingman drew the wrath of former Dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis, as well as the mockery and criticism of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education(FIRE) and the media, when he pressured incoming students to sign a pledge to “act with integrity, respect, and industry, and…civility” and to believe that ”the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.” Dingman posted the pledge with signatures affixed near dormitory entrances where all could see who had surrendered to this strange attack on freedom of conscience and who had not. Dean Dingman eventually caved under the pressure and agreed to take down the signature lists, although not the text of the pledge itself.
We now know that Dean Dingman’s retreat was merely a tactical one. He was not persuaded by his critics’ arguments against pressuring college students to publicly display their personal and ideological opinions, especially when the pressure was to announce belief in the Dean’s own personal views. Dingman must be unfamiliar with the sordid centuries-long history of authoritarian figures requiring the less powerful to mouth officially-approved views. And so this year, without any public pre-announcement (which doomed last year’s thought-reform efforts because it gave opponents time to mount an attack),Dean Dingman managed to slip a stealth re-education program into Harvard’s freshman orientation week. It was essentially the same stuff recycled in a format where he did not have to get the students to actually sign, and so where there was no clear forum or trigger for dissent.
Special Attention for Some Groups
“We did not have [freshmen] sign pledges, but we pushed every bit as hard on how important it was to consider their growth on all fronts,” Dean Dingman told the Harvard Crimson, which reports that required “sensitivity training” was added to Harvard’s freshman orientation program for the class of 2016. As part of this programming, proctors instructed students to perform skits, such as one where a religious roommate put a cross in a common area or where a wealthy roommate bought something expensive that other roommates could not afford to chip in for. ”This way,” Dean Dingman said, “students learn how to have a conversation where someone doesn’t feel marginalized.” If Harvard freshmen aren’t able, without pressure and imposed guidance from the dean, to get through a conversation without “marginalizing” someone, age eighteen is likely too late to begin teaching them empathy. In any event, Dingman seems incapable of recognizing the profound challenge that his imposition of “sensitivity” and supposed empathy poses to each individual student’s dignity and right to hold his or her own views.
Now, there’s nothing wrong, of course, with the notion that it’s – um – nice when human beings are nice to one another. But the Harvard dean’s concept goes well beyond his merely expressing his desire that niceness should win out over nastiness in the typical Harvard freshman’s daily interactions with schoolmates. For one thing, his use of the word “marginalized” indicates that what he really has in mind is the post-modernist notion that special attention should be paid when addressing members of what are known in academia as “historically disadvantaged” groups. It is a kind of differential treatment for such students, where care is taken to avoid saying anything too disturbing, even if the speaker wholly believes what he or she is saying and even if the “marginalized” students themselves would rather not be treated like delicate flowers. Freshman orientation becomes yet another area of academic life where deans can exert pressure for special treatment of certain student groups, all in the name of achieving a kind of faux equality.And there’s something else wrong with Dean Dingman’s initiation of kindness education in the form of sensitivity training – it’s intrusion into the right of private conscience.
Read more at Minding the Campus