An Interview With Professor Harvey Mansfield
By ANA LUIZA NICOLAE
Professor Harvey Mansfield has spent much of his adult life at Harvard. The Independent had the opportunity to share time with the “last conservative Professor on campus” and hear about what it’s like to have been at Harvard for 70 years, with a hiatus of four years to live outside Crimson territory.
The Indy and Professor Mansfield discussed affirmative action, the role and place of women and feminism within the college, partisanship among the Professors and political correctness, among other topics of interest.
This interview has been amended for length and/or clarity and contextual information has been included in [Brackets].
The Indy: What have you never stopped loving at Harvard?
Mansfield: I guess I’ll say that it is the students above all. After all, the main reason the students come here is the other students, in addition to the reputation of Harvard. We also have big shot faculty, and there are fruitful consequences to graduating from Harvard. But truly, it’s the other students.
I teach, and think, and write about “the Great Books,” so the opportunity to do that with the students I get here is priceless. That’s what I really think makes us number one: we’re able to get the best.
I went to Harvard myself, I spent my life here. So the look of it I like, or at least I’m used to it. There’s a lot of variety in the architecture. Among other things I love about Harvard is its location. Being by a river; near, but not in Boston. And it being the oldest American university, the most prestigious, has an appeal. Well, although I somehow think it still is number one, that is perhaps not by the same margin that it used to have, because there’s a lot of competition.
I think that it’s also the best place to be for a Professor. It’s the other Professors too.
I’m not a popular teacher, I don’t get a lot of students. The ones I get are good. I’m pretty good at detracting students who aren’t that good. So I tend to teach about 30 or 40.
[The Professor now teaches a course series on the History of Political Philosophy. The Fall semester focuses on the Ancient and Medieval periods, with the Modern period to be explored in the Spring.]
So I’m just rambling on about my teaching [laughs], and the way I’ve enjoyed it. To get back on track, this supply of students has been a constant for me. Notwithstanding that the student body has changed a whole lot, with women coming in for instance.
Indy: Notwithstanding that change in dynamics from the inclusion of women, do you think that the moral values upheld by the students at the College have changed somewhat over the years?
M: I’m sure, yes they are subject to change…. Harvard has turned left since my time.
When I arrived as a freshman, that was in the year 1949, the student body was still mostly Republican. That changed during my time as an undergraduate. Most of my cohort voted for Adlai Stevenson over Eisenhower, unlike the rest of America. And since then, they became more generally Democrat. The big change remained in the late 60’s, when the Left came to town.
They essentially took over from the Liberals.
So I’m sort of a conservative, but I got appointed by a Liberal department. Back then all of [my liberal colleagues] were against the Vietnam war, but not against it like the New Left was. So, there was a showdown between the two parties and at that moment, the liberals had won over the Left, but in the long run, I’d say that it is the Left that won.
Tenured radicals, it’s what they put into Harvard.
And then feminism came on, somewhere in the early 70’s, which added to the pressure from the Left, because the feminists at that time were all pretty far left feminists. And in its form at the time, it had its origin in Simone de Beauvoir, a Marxist. It wasn’t long however before they made their peace with bourgeois careerism.They wanted jobs, careers. They were much more practical than some of the Marxists.
Also, not many people realize that the greatest enemy of feminism was femininity. Say, women who believe in modesty. That was the target of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,’’ “mousy’’ and “submissive.’’ That these were false ideas that were instilled in them by men, who wanted to put them on a pedestal.
Women shouldn’t stop behaving like women.
And now we have this political correctness, which I think is very bad. Informal constraints on freedom of speech, felt even amongst students.
Last year I had an Iranian student in my class, and she came around to office hours and was quite interesting, so my wife and I had her over for dinner and talked to her. She made a remark to us that in Iran, you have to watch very carefully what you say in public, but in private it’s relatively free. “Here in America, and at Harvard,’’ she had said “it’s the reverse,’’ don’t say what you want in public.
Politically, there’s a lot of free speech, but here, and in the Dining Halls for instance, it’s very restricted.
Indy: In this shift, from the point of view of limitations to free speech, has there been limiting factor on the rationality displayed by your students?
M: At my age, and with my notoriety, they sort of know what they’re in for. That’s another thing that’s changed over the years: the possibility of choice of courses, of Professors. The process has become politicized. I tend to have a, not entirely, but mostly conservative student group in my classes. I tend to dispel students that are easily offended by things which depart from the new language of decency. That’s not good.
Actually, students are the one group that have the most diversity politically. There are not a lot of conservatives here but there are some. The student body is in fact more diverse than the faculty. The latter has just a tiny number of conservatives. The administration is even worse than that.
Indeed, it gets worse and worse.
I guess it’s worse at the more prestigious universities. So a student going to college today is better off going to a large place, which has a big enough faculty so that one can find a few Professors who aren’t trying to recruit students to some partisan view.
That’s something I’ve tried hard not to do.
Indy: In a sense, does that partisanship alter the relationship of faculty to students?
M: Oh yes! A lot of students would simply not take a course from someone like me. Because they wouldn’t want to hear a more neutral state of affairs. They are always attentive for some “hot topic’’. For instance, being in politics, I try to use a lot of political examples, which I try to distribute across the left and the right. However, they wouldn’t like that. Today, everyone’s very alert to the “asides’’ that the Professors are making. They are interested in what the Professors really believe in.
The main subject of the lecture, becomes less interesting to some students than these “asides.”
There are also Professors who give classes that are totally asides. Going to a small school is infeasible nowadays, because it’s too small, tight, there’s no place to hide, nobody to talk to.
This leads me to talk to students that have nobody to talk to. Students who feel the need to find a sort of political friendship, which is bad.
Indy: What do you think about the political positions which students hold, and their lack of expression or debate among each other, but also the lack of potential for rhetoric skill?
M: They don’t want to argue. Being offended is a kind of defense.
Indy: How is diversity shaping Harvard?
M: Has the background of incoming students improved “diversity?” A little bit. It improves moderation, racially too I think. But we also must consider our students of color that aren’t American, because they have a different experience, they don’t feel as much of a sense of community.
You know, two of my four years not at Harvard were spent in the army. That was a long time ago. At that time, it was a very racially mixed group…I was not an officer, I was an enlisted man, which is a great way to really experience what the army is.
Indy: Would it be comparable to any student doing the ROTC program today?
M: No! Not in the least. Those kids are just growing up to be damn officers!
In being enlisted, you come to experience a real class difference which is profound and something to live with, especially in a democratic society.
Indy: Are we generally less tough today?
M: Yes. Yeah.
Indy: It is said that any young activist that steps outside of class to protest, to strike, for climate change and for a plethora of other issues, actually has the determination of a political actor which has more agency than there has previously been for people our age in the past. What do you think?
M: No, it’s more zealousness, more zeal, more partisanship.
In a way lesser agency, because you simplify. One of the strange things about the late ‘60s in being at Harvard was to hear students chant or shout slogans. I never thought that Harvard students would do that. But now they do, and it’s quite become a habit.
By way of chanting slogans, you reduce your agency, simplifying your thoughts, seeking the support of unanimity and group that you’re demonstrating with.
Youth are also making demands… Reasonable people don’t “make a demand.” Presidents order commands, instead of demands. A demand is a command from a person who is in no position to demand.
Another reason why there is a semblance of agency comes from the greater respectability and regard attributed to youth. When I came to Harvard and left high school, the last thing I wanted was to remain a high schooler.
So, I wore the jacket, which we had to wear, along with the necktie, every time we would go to the Dining Hall. That, for me was an honor and not a burden. You could go around with a tweed jacket and you’d have your tie in your pocket, and you’d put it on as you were standing in line. There were no women to straighten your tie.
But then, in the ‘60s, students referred to themselves as “kids,’’ singing the slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Indeed they drew the line by wanting solidarity with high schoolers and to distinguish themselves from adults.
They didn’t want to be adults yet.
And they got away with this, and they succeeded. And the voice of youth became the voice of progress, of wisdom even.
You have to listen to the young. They were in charge and that’s continued quite a bit, lessened somewhat and surprisingly by how old the democratic candidates are for President in that regard.
Indy: With the uptake of the NBA and the NFL becoming marketable products, how as that changed the environment for student athletes?
M: Well that’s something Harvard has done well: the way they manage athletics.
I like having sports teams. They attach you to the College, give you something to shout for, and they make the alumni into more of a community. It stays with you. You always want Harvard to beat Yale, whatever age you are. But Harvard is in the Ivy League and the Ivy League has much stricter regulations, many fewer games, doesn’t go to bowls, and as a result play a lower level, but is still competitive among itself. The games are interesting and they play well.
The athletes are smaller and slower than the ones you can see on TV, but I go to a lot of games so I like that very much.
And I like women’s sports too, I go to some of them.
As I wrote a book on manliness some years ago, I would go to sporting events for researching. I wanted to see the way that women played hockey, for example, as compared to men.
With men you have to teach players to pass the puck, with women you have to teach to shoot… they love to pass.
Two or three years ago, in one of my classes there were the two co-captains of the women’s basketball team. They invited me to become honorary coach for one game. On one of these time-outs in basketball where everybody comes onto the court and sits down for around 30 seconds, I was able to hear the coach [motivating] them. That was a lot of fun for me.
These are both athletic groups that are single sex groups, something which Harvard somehow inconsistently tolerates.
I am of course speaking of the move against the final clubs, which I really think is outrageous. I have nothing to do with those clubs, never was in one of them, been in two or three of them once the whole time I’ve been here. But the intolerance shown for those people and the lack of freedom of association, is a very bad sign.
[As it got dark outside, Professor Mansfield kindly invited us into his cozy home, modern, and populated by beautiful pieces of art. He explained that his wife was still out playing tennis while he was getting us refreshments.]
Indy: When talking of the change in women’s participation in the College. What has that change brought?
M: Well, they participate equally right now. They have an advantage most times, because everyone wants to have a woman doing something or in charge of something… There’s a sort of gender neutral society that we’re creating. In order to make the sexes “equal,” there is a logic of favoring women right now until it’s decided that there is “gender parity.’’ That’s a phrase I’ve heard. And this goes together with affirmative action, so you can see all these appointments of women as deans, what used to be the title of “Master.”
[In pointing at the area towards the Quadrangle, Mansfield reminisced of Radcliffe in his time.]
It was separate, and most of the classes were mixed, but not all of them. Sometimes they would have a Harvard professor who would give his class twice, once for men and another for women. The dormitories were totally separate and the institutions used to be separate, for they had different presidents. Radcliffe was part of Harvard, and the faculty was mixed, but originally it had separate faculty as well.
But I can tell you what was very different.
Just the atmosphere in the dining hall.
Indy: Less rowdy?
M: Yes. The men aren’t as high-spirited and jokey as they would be if women weren’t present. Because a man hates to make a fool of himself in front of a woman. There’s this great moral power that women have.
So in bringing the sexes together, it turns the men into “premature husbands.”
The single sex idea has lost its potency. It’s interesting that with the single sex idea losing its power, so has marriage. It is not as strong nor as successful as it used to be.
This kind of flattened-out relationship between the sexes is a consequence of the total emphasis on equality in the sexes. It doesn’t let each of the two sexes develop as a sex, independently.
Indy: Do you think this has impacted faculty relations? For faculty to deal with mixed classes, but also having an increasing number of women on Faculty boards. How has that changed dynamics over time?
M: Well, it gives much more power and impetus to feminism, I’ll say. And feminism is mostly received, welcomed by most of the faculty.
Indy: That is, which type of feminism?
M: It’s hard to know… you’re right. There are different types of feminism. If you’re a woman academic, you’re more likely to be a feminist though, a more invested feminist than the rest. There’s an interesting statistic that something like, without trying to remember the numbers, twice as many male faculty are married as opposed to women faculty. So there’s a lot of unmarried women who are faculty and that means generally speaking more feminism too.
Because if you have to live with a man, it affects the way you think about them.
Indy: How about the new age of self-identified feminist men?
M: Yes there are, that is a type. In fact, the progressive men are all feminist. That is a striking feature of our time.
And on the opposite, to be severe or to want to stress differences or to imply that women are in any way inferior, or to give that impression, is simply impossible now. You’d be told in no uncertain terms to correct your behavior and your language.
Indy: Has that played a part in Faculty relations with regards to the development of the Humanities, or of the department of Government? What has changed with changing politics but also with this sort of new informal tendency towards political correctness?
It’s very much on show within our department. It’s not as extreme as I think it is in the Humanities. Political scientists, you would think anyway, should recognize in politics two parties. But some of them don’t seem to know that.
When you’re closer to the facts of politics, you’re a little less amazed or startled at any given thing. That comes when you find people with whom you disagree.
Indy: Are we that secluded from the facts of politics?
M: Yes, we’re in a bubble. Harvard’s a bubble, absolutely, and it’s a disadvantage which is beginning to show. We don’t realize how low Harvard’s liberal core reputation is among half the country. If you’re a Republican, and Harvard is the number one university, when you want to make fun of the other side, it’s usually when Harvard comes in.
For instance, we just had a tax law enacted, geared at putting a tax on income from the endowment, costing us 143 million dollars. That’s a tidy sum, and you could do something with that amount of money. And we’re sending it to the Federal government because we won’t take the trouble to appear impartial. You probably haven’t gone to a commencement yet, but when you do you’ll see that it’s a kind of a political festival for the Left.
It is very much against Harvard’s interests and they wouldn’t have to do much at all to put a better, more impartial, light on the way that they appear publicly.
Indy: How does that play in the face of tradition, the tradition and the claims to uphold “Veritas’’ and the traditions of the school being a research university?
M: Well, most of the people in charge aren’t particularly proud of Harvard’s traditions. It’s involved in male domination and religious intolerance. They look out for ways in which Harvard was involved in slavery and slave trade. Though actually if you go into Memorial Church and look at the names of those who have died in the War against slavery, you could be impressed in the other direction.
Indy: How happy are you, that is a very subjective term, I understand, but how happy are you with the state of the University but also your presence in it today?
M: I’m used to my place. People are congenial enough. They let me talk, but they don’t listen. And so, I’ve been called Harvard’s last conservative. That is certainly an exaggeration, but not by much. So when I hear that, I wince. That things are headed that way. You know… Our department hasn’t hired anyone you might consider conservative for quite a long time. And that’s mainly true in the Faculty hiring in general.
So, I love the place but I’m highly critical of the status as well.
I talk to the president. He knows me, he knows my views, at least has an opportunity to listen to them. So it isn’t totalitarian… At least not yet.
I do get on my hind feet at faculty meetings sometimes in trying to express my views, and the rest of the faculty listen politely. That’s it.
Indy: What would be some of these issues for which you stand up?
M: Well, affirmative action above all. And, the abolition of the title “Master’’. These are just signposts, signals, of intolerance.
No one is aware of what they’re doing. They think I’m the political one, the ideologue, simply because I want to have political diversity represented at the College as well.
They are willing to consider race and sex in addition to merit, but they won’t consider politics. So I will bring that up. Saying, if you’re willing to do those two things, sort of dilute merit with race and sex, why not bring in a few conservatives?
It would be so easy for them to do that, and there are so many. This goes for faculty as well. There are all these think tanks in Washington, filled with political scientists who are conservatives. They could be Professors, they write books and talk a lot. That right there is a kind of reserve army of conservatives, who don’t have academic positions because of [their political affiliation].
I’m starting to complain too much.
I’m happy actually, very cheerful. I don’t think this can last forever, and Harvard will outlast it. It’s a bad time we’re going through. And it does affect our quality of scholarship. I wouldn’t want to be too specific about that and what it does…
Indy: Is that an impact on rigorousness, in being rigorous and conscientious with terms that are used?
M: There are a lot of Professors, democratic professors who give honest courses I would say.
There are Professors that give both sides. You can find that, but it’s hard and you have to search out your curriculum if you want to get a good education.
Conservatives get a much better education at Harvard than the liberals because they don’t swallow everything that’s told to them. When I say conservatives, I understand in the wider sense, non-liberals, and so some of the foreign students also benefit from not being liberal.
Ana Luiza Nicolae ’22 (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes news for the Indy.