Little that goes on at America’s elite, “progressive” universities surprises us any longer, but every so often something so perfectly cockeyed, so wrong, commands our attention. The recent remarks of a Harvard dean are an example.
As described by Heather Mac Donald in a superb Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dean of Students Rakesh Khurana took the opportunity at graduation (“Class Day”) to make assertions that are uninspiring, callow, and, worst of all, wrong. This passage from Ms. Mac Donald’s article is illustrative:
“The ‘capitalist ethos,’ according to Mr. Khurana, tells us that ‘we deserve to win because of our skill, our hard work, and our contributions.’ Mr. Khurana — who is also a professor of business and of sociology — claimed to be mystified by that belief.“
Well, we are also mystified — by Mr. Khurana, who went on to rail about “structural inequities” such as “inherited privilege,” the supposed myth of the self-made person, and the meaninglessness of “deserving.” This sophomoric claptrap from a professor of business at Harvard?
Could Mr. Khurana possibly be unaware that people such as Jeff Bezos, Marc Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergei Brin, Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Larry Page, Barack Obama, and innumerable others, inherited little and yet have been wildly successful? Privilege played little part in their success compared to their accomplishments. What has become of the famous dictum of Francis Bacon that “chiefly the mould of a man’s fortune is in his own hands?” (Oh, we forgot — old white guys like him are passé at Harvard.)
Short of yelling “FIRE!” in the auditorium, Mr. Khurana certainly had the right to say whatever he wished. Much has been written about free speech being under attack, especially at universities and colleges. Speakers with conservative viewpoints are routinely banished from important venues, denied attendance, picketed, or subjected to the “hecklers’ veto.” At the University of California, Berkeley and other campuses where conservative speech has been met with disorder, activists have justified it because “speech is violence.” Gone is adherence to the maxim of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “If there be time to … avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” (Another old white guy.)
Speakers must be held accountable for their words, but sometimes “accountability” is ideological and unfair. Former Harvard President Lawrence Summers found this out when, at an academic conference, he speculated about the preponderance of men among professors of mathematics and physical sciences at elite universities. Although he acknowledged that women confronted barriers such as discrimination and disproportionate family responsibilities, he hypothesized that there might be other factors, such as men’s superior performance in tests measuring mathematical ability. Summers was vilified and ridiculed, and eventually resigned.
Another, more recent example of allowing the mob to rule at Harvard was the university’s stripping law professor Ronald Sullivan of his position as faculty dean of a college residence hall. The reason? Some students felt “unsafe” because Sullivan represented Harvey Weinstein against charges of sexual misconduct. As Sullivan put it, at Harvard, “Unchecked emotion has replaced thoughtful reasoning on campus. Feelings are no longer subjected to evidence, analysis or empirical defense. Angry demands, rather than rigorous arguments, now appear to guide university policy.”
Harvard is not alone. In 2015, Erika Christakis, a highly regarded Yale University lecturer in early childhood education and an administrator at a student residence, was hounded into leaving the faculty for having the temerity to suggest that there could be negative implications if students were to cede “implied control” over Halloween costumes to “institutional forces.” She was responding to a directive from the Intercultural Affairs Committee at Yale that warned students it would be insensitive to wear costumes that could imply cultural appropriation, such as feathered headdresses, turbans, war paint, blackface or redface, or costumes that poked fun at certain people. In that response, she in effect predicted her own destiny:
“American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition.”
While Khurana credits chance with the lion’s share of “real” success, he completely misses the reality: The primary luck we all have is where and to which parents we are born, the level of brainpower we are gifted with at birth, the culture in which we are immersed from early childhood — and, to some degree, also our race and ethnicity. Much as Khurana (and many other progressives) might want to believe it, we do not all benefit equally from the genetic lottery. “Nurture” can overcome some limitations and stifle some abilities, but our core selves and parentage cannot be changed. The question is, what do we do with what we have, which is the essence of personal responsibility and free choice.
Different places in this world respond differently to the accident of birth. To this day, India remains partially mired in the caste system. In other countries, those unlucky enough to be born to disfavored minority ethnic groups may face death or permanent relegation to deprived circumstances. In America, we are always striving to eliminate disadvantages of geography, race, religion, gender, and culture, sometimes to a fault. That is “who we are.” That is why we are the Land of Opportunity.
As Ms. Mac Donald points out in her article, the family unit seems to be highly influential in the nurture process. Asian families tend to be very close-knit, and as we see in the United States, their offspring tend to be high achievers. Out-of-wedlock births among black Americans number almost three out of four, and many of those children seem to require more than the typical public-school education to thrive and replace some of what is missing on the family side. It is not “privilege” to have a constructive family culture; it is the luck of who your parents are. To this extent, “chance” sets us up for a greater or lesser probability of future success.
However, the great leveling factors in our society — skill, ambition, hard work, and achievement — are precisely those dismissed by Khurana. Not everyone has every skill, though many can be taught within the inherent limitation of their intellectual capacity. Not everyone has a personality suited to every opportunity. It is the opportunities afforded in American society for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to coin a phrase, that remove many, though not all, of the constraints that might limit us.
Khurana’s views are antithetical to the opportunity to succeed, because his conception of “chance” seems to constrain and define us. Why strive for anything when the roll of the dice might be more important? Thomas Jefferson had it right:
“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
That’s the note on which Mr. Khurana should have ended his remarks.
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard’s Beth Israel Hospital. Andrew I. Fillat spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. He is also the co-inventor of relational databases and holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. Both were undergraduates downriver from Harvard, at M.I.T.
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