Harvard University's 'Kindness Pledge'

By Toni Waterman

Oct. 5, 2011

Watch the segment that aired on Oct. 3 on WGBH's Greater Boston.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — There's a new and controversial philosophy at Harvard University this year. All incoming students have been asked to take what has been dubbed "The Kindness Pledge." It reads:

"As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to make the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment."

It sounds innocent enough, but the pledge is sparking debate. For one thing, says former Harvard College Dean Harry Lewis, the school has a 375-year-old tradition of rejecting pledges.

"If you go back and read about Harvard in the 17th century, it talks about how, unlike Oxford and Cambridge where the founders had been educated, Harvard didn't have any religious oaths and that's kind of persisted over the years," said Lewis.

He said Harvard isn't a particularly unkind place to begin with, so he was surprised when he heard about the pledge. Apparently, the pledge is the result of a few unhappy incidents between students and staff last year.

Still, Lewis finds ‘kindness' an odd value to pick, considering the schools history.

"We actually value nonconformity. And nonconformity, you know, can sometimes seem to be unkind if the person you are disagreeing with finds you disagreeable," he said, adding, "So I began to worry a little bit about the sort of thought control tendency."

Lewis said asking freshman on their very first day of school to sign a pledge to control their thoughts undermines the school's stated objective — and Roman model — Veritas, the goddess of truth. Lewis thinks there's perhaps been some confusion between civility and kindness.

"They're not the same thing. I actually do think that it's reasonable to ask people to be civil," Lewis said. "But kindness means going beyond the call of duty, you know, to do something extra."

As for the students on campus, reaction has been mixed, one senior said that all the students are prescreened before they arrive, so the school already knows what its getting. "In my class, I feel most of the kids are very kind. So I don't think it's necessary," he said as he hurried off to class.

A sophomore added, "They shouldn't have to sign a pledge to do that. They should already want to be like that, or be like that in general."

But some Harvard students think the pledge is a good thing.

"I think it's a good thing to reinforce moral values in people and remind them that Harvard is a place that expects you to act and to be a person of character," said one senior. Another one added, "If it starts a discussion, I think sometimes, you know, it's a good place to start making change."

Lewis doesn't say that change is a bad thing, but says "The Kindness Pledge," like most moral postures, is a bit hypocritical.

"It seemed odd to expect freshmen to pledge to do something which not everyone among that professorial and deans and presidents always show. We did after all have a notable former Harvard President who referred to some students during the summer using a seven-letter word, which began with "A" said Lewis.

Lewis is, of course, referring to the July incident in which President Larry Summers called the infamous Winklevoss twins a disparaging word.

"And was there any statements from the deans and the presidents and the faculty about how the former president, the university professor, should be kinder to students? No," said Lewis. "They expect the most powerless, sort of the bottom people on the totem pole to pledge to something that is neither exhibited nor pledged to by the people who have greater power in the University."

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