jimsleeper.com » What Martin Peretz and Harvard Got Wrong

What Martin Peretz and Harvard Got Wrong

By Jim Sleeper – September 22, 2010, TPMCafe

Well-meaning supporters of naming a scholarship fund for Martin Peretz at Harvard lost sight of something far more important to the future of American higher education and the republic than the reprehensible things Peretz wrote about Muslims on his blog. Even those opposed to Harvard’s decision today to accept the fund named for Peretz have erred, I think, in limiting their objections to his “bigotry.”

Peretz’s supporters, some of them his former students, seem determined not to notice what he has become in recent years. And Harvard seems determined not to notice what his battening himself onto a college he literally worships actually portends for its soul.

What’s really appalling — but what no one seems to want to face — is the rise of people like this who, whatever their past ideals and pretensions, haven’t kept faith with liberal education (let alone scholarship) yet are buying themselves more presence and prestige on campuses. That is skewing undergraduate education in ways few understand. Peretz isn’t the worst villain, but he is a vivid example of what’s wrong.

Donors to liberal education should be seen by name, not heard. Peretz’s preoccupation with Harvard – evidenced in The New Republic’s shamefully worshipful profiles of Lawrence Summers as a martyr to political correctness at Harvard and an apostle of economic reform in Washington — has been so unseemly that Harvard’s willingness to honor him smacks of its own disorientation and financial desperation. (At the height of the controversy, the donors upped their contribution to the Peretz Research Fund from $500,000 to $650,000, as if that would ensure Harvard’s acceptance. Perhaps it did.)

A few years ago, when Little, Brown canceled a $500,000, two-novel deal with Kaavya Viswanathan — a Harvard sophomore whose authorial voice, like her application to Harvard, had been packaged by pricey handlers — I noted in the Boston Globe that “today’s Harvard is no more likely to help her find an inner moral compass than Tiffany & Co. is to improve its customers’ morality. Students contemplate with self-recognition her fall from what one, in the Harvard Crimson, called ‘the same rickety tower of meritocracy that so many of us built on our way to our Harvard admission.'”

Peretz and his supporters don’t approve of this, of course. They just happen to be part of it — in more ways than they’ve reckoned with. They’ve grown soft on what really counts in liberal education. They’ve forgotten Allan Bloom’s warning that liberal education must resist both ”whatever is most powerful” and the ”worship of vulgar success.”

True openness, Bloom said, ”means closedness to all the charms that make us comfortable with the present.” He disdained professors who strive to become counselors to the king and forget that ”the intellectual, who attempts to influence . . . ends up in the power of the would-be influenced.” And he lamented the emergence of new academic departments like mass communications and business management, which ”wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university.” Such departments or institutes or centers — like Yale’s new Jackson Institute for Global Affairs — are now reorienting undergraduate education in ways that demand careful watching and criticism.

Harvard’s Social Studies program has been both an oasis and a vibrant center for what’s best in liberal education, in ways I won’t reprise here but which Peretz’s supporters recall. Somehow, they’ve failed to contrast their memories of Social Studies with Peretz’s public performances of the past decade.

Colleges that want to train national and global leaders must indeed strike a difficult, delicate balance between humanist Truth seeking and republican Power-wielding. And, yes, they are therefore right to let people with “real world” wisdom who can meet liberal education standards — including Marty Peretz, and, for that matter, me — teach a course or two, as leavens in the campus mix.

But, as I say in today’s Harvard Crimson, that’s is no reason to load any of us up with academic honors and institutional sway, especially because of our (I mean Peretz’s) worldly wealth and “connections.”

That is exactly what Bloom rightly wanted liberal education to resist. But it is exactly what colleges are especially vulnerable to these days, under duress as they are fiscally and ideologically (more from the right now than from the left). Turning liberal education into a game of money, power, and public relations only makes matters worse.

Why have Peretz’s supporters lost sight of this? Some have fond memories of him in his younger years. Some of them feel indebted to him for the support and direction he gave them back then. Some, like the columnist E.J. Dionne, have become captives of Beltway Comity Syndrome, in which you treat every fellow pundit as a hale fellow well met.

Dionne has been egregious at this, blurbing everyone’s book, no matter what it says, serving as moderator or panelist at everyone’s conference, and moving about the capital as if he were the bishop in Ulysses, dispensing beneficent smiles and benedictions to virtually everyone. The circle of Washington punditry is E.J.’s diocese, but this is not Christian charity, it is a subtle conceit about power that’s beginning to remind me of the false felicity of Hapsburg Vienna in 1914.

I sketched another example of Beltway Comity Syndrome here a couple of years ago when George Packer took it upon himself, in the New Yorker, to assist David Brooks in an attempted (and ongoing) political makeover, only to make them both look like monkeys grooming each other in the Chattering Classes Zoo.

Memo to E.J. Dionne: What we need in Washington now is more comity among politicians and less comity among pundits, especially between you and Peretz. I mean not that more savants should shout past one another but that they should be more forthright in challenging one another to explain themselves – and then listen when they do, and respond, with the public’s interest foremost.

Memo to Harvard: Re-read your former college dean Harry Lewis’ Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education.