By Varun Bhandari
“That is a very interesting comment. What do the rest of you think?” said the professor to eye-rolls and muted groans, as yet another dim remark by a classmate was tactfully sidestepped.
“What the hell was he talking about? That was a ridiculous comment!” whispered my neighbor, “Why didn’t the professor just correct him?”
To a lot of people from outside the US, this mollycoddling of students is tantamount to intellectual dishonesty. We fail to understand why adults need to be treated like children, especially in an academic setting where the goal is to arrive at a deeper understanding.
Ever since I moved to the US over a year ago as a graduate student at the Kennedy School, I have been struck by the absence of passionate discussion on policy issues. This is inexplicable in a school with so much diversity. Constructive debate is a vital part of any educational experience, especially for an institution that seeks to develop future leaders.
My fellow undergraduates at the London School of Economics would engage in heated political discussions every week at Students Union meetings, on issues ranging from the War on Iraq to rising tuition fees for university students. And they were vocal – I have lost count of the number of times protest marches originated from Houghton Street, the LSE’s equivalent of Harvard Yard. We had political representation across the spectrum, from Marxists to staunch Conservatives, making for spectacular (and often caustic) verbal battles.
I had similar expectations when I came to the Kennedy School and the general elections in 2012 should have been a perfect opportunity to get a ringside view of gloves-off political debate. But instead it was like a rally before the Harvard-Yale game. Raucous cheering in the HKS Forum would follow Obama’s statements during the presidential debates. Harvard students and faculty there were acting like teenage groupies at a rock concert.
After the debate, there were no discussions about the failures of the Democratic administration. No political debates about fiscal or foreign policy. It was our Obama versus the evil Mitt Romney, and there was only one side to support.
Or take another example: At LSE we had the Leninist and Marxist clubs while at HKS, we have the Progressive Caucus. What does that mean? What is a progressive caucus? Is that Marxism wrapped in politically correct terminology? This is a far cry from the 1930s, when Harvard was regarded as “Kremlin on Charles.”
There is perhaps a cultural element to this behavior, which is reflected in the media. The London press often takes a confrontational stance against the government, regularly breaking embarrassing stories such as the recent MP expense scandal. This is a stark contrast to the US, where mainstream news often errs too far on the side of caution, all in the misguided attempt to appear balanced.
Television debates are hijacked by ideologues and often focus on the superficial and inane, rather than substantive policy differences. The notable exception is comedy shows like the Daily Show, which could explain its popularity among the young.
Finally, some of the softening of discourse could also be because people mellow as they get older. It is perhaps unfair to compare an undergraduate institution with a graduate school. Many students previously worked for the government, and a misplaced comment could cost them a political career. That is, if they haven’t already been indoctrinated, part of a system where compromise and risk-avoidance ensure survival.
Nevertheless, is it not in educational institutions that we can take risks and imagine new worlds? Within these ivory towers, away from the battleground of politics, could we not formulate the charter of a utopian society, based not on political expediency but on normative issues of what is just and right? As future leaders, the consequences for uninspired business-as-usual politics are dire, as social revolutions around the world from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street to rioting in London have revealed.
Gaurav Keerthi, a Mid-career student from Singapore who hosted an Emmy-nominated televised debate show in Singapore, agrees on the need for more debate at HKS:
“If we do not hear all sides of the issue, we run the risk of forming unbalanced opinions and creating unbalanced policies,” Gaurav argues. “As students we are here to learn, to explore and to understand. That requires us to step outside of our comfort zones in terms of ideas, and listen and accept views that may be alien to our culture and background without jumping to judgments and conclusions.”
Encouraging healthy debate allows us to do just that. So, what do you think? I’d love to hear your rebuttal.