An Open Letter to Lawrence H. Summers

By Finn, Chester B., Jr. | Policy Review, June-July 2002 | Go to article overview

An Open Letter to Lawrence H. Summers


Finn, Chester B., Jr., Policy Review


Dear Larry

YOU BEGAN YOUR HARVARD PRESIDENCY with promising hints that you might reverse the intellectual, moral, and political drift of America's most prestigious campus and thus bring a much-needed example of principled leadership to higher education in general. But as we both know, the reform spirit does not sit easily with the modern university. You have already been sharply challenged and harshly criticized. A lot depends on whether you stand up to it or give in. Giving in is, of course, what most people expect.

Yes, I'm a disgruntled alumnus, much rankled by Harvard's three-decade slide toward political correctness, neo-racialism, and mediocrity. Since the late Nathan Pusey stepped down as president -- after being mau-maued by unruly students and forsaken by much of the professoriate -- your predecessors in Massachusetts Hall have been appeasers, pacifiers, and fundraisers, not education visionaries or principled leaders.

When you arrived -- former wunderkind economist with plenty of brains, a reputation for feistiness, and solid experience in Washington-style politics -- you made the right noises. Your inaugural address on October 1 2 was not the usual porridge. You pledged Harvard to pursue the truth "first and last as an end in itself." In Pusey's time, such a statement would not be worth remarking. But in today's academic environment -- where some research topics are taboo, some teachings are protested because their content makes people antsy, and some scholars don't get hired or tenured because their take on truth goes against the grain -- this is an important doctrine to reestablish.

You went further. You declared that "the university is open to all ideas, but it is committed to the skepticism that is the hallmark of education." Another commonplace in Pusey's day, perhaps, but bold defiance of current reality on many campuses, where some ideas are shunned entirely and others sanctified without critical examination.

You tweaked the pieties of political correctness: "Our special obligation is to seek ... not what is popular or ... conventionally believed, but what is right and in the deepest and most rigorous sense advances our understanding of the world."

You also asserted yourself on the quality of undergraduate education: "We must ... press them to the highest standards of intellectual excellence." Harvard, as you knew in October and as the world knows now, has a king-sized problem with its academic standards for students. But imagine "pressing" today's collegians, especially on an elite campus! It would, for most, be the first time anyone did anything but cosset, praise, and indulge them.

You took a swipe at relativism, the core doctrine of modern academic discourse. You averred that the "torch of truth" is borne "when we promote understanding -- not the soft understanding that glides over questions of right and wrong, but the hard-won comprehension that the threat before us demands." The notion of "right and wrong" has not been welcome in the 02138 zip code for a long time.

You even tipped your hat to patriotism, though many in your audience surely gulped. No, you did not use the P-word, but, speaking a month after the September 11 attacks, you approvingly quoted FDR'S statement that "It is the part of Harvard and America to stand for the freedom of the human mind." Not Harvard in opposition to America -- the standard post-Vietnam formula -- but Harvard in league with America, both supporting freedom. And you said something else: You spoke of "honor[ing] those who defend our freedom." It's been ages since Harvard did any honest honoring of men and women in uniform.

What you didn't say was important, too. Though you spoke earnestly of inclusiveness and diversity, you never used the phrase "affirmative action, an omission swiftly noted by the scrutinizers of politico-academic tea leaves. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

An Open Letter to Lawrence H. Summers
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.