Harvard Law and the Leftist War on Intellectualism

Martha Minow holds perhaps the most prestigious deanship in America, that of Harvard Law School. Last week Minow capitulated to protests and announced her support for changing the law school’s crest. A group of activists calling themselves “Reclaim Harvard Law” have been agitating for months against the crest, which incorporates the Royall family coat-of-arms. Isaac Royall Jr., who endowed Harvard Law allowing its creation, was a slave owner.

Yet Minow has made the wrong decision. Because this is about far more than a picture on a seal. What’s really at stake here is Harvard Law’s intellectual credibility and history’s role in informing minds on campus.

For a start, the sum of history is more than a crest. All nations have committed terrible acts, and Royall’s participation in the slave trade is just one part of America’s great national crime. Yet just as we ultimately identify our flag as a banner for American exceptionalism not American malfeasance, Harvard Law School is not solely defined by its worst moments. Consider another slave owner, George Washington. Were we to apply the Reclaim Harvard Law’s criteria of history, Washington would have to be removed from the dollar bill. A ludicrous proposition. This is not to argue that we shouldn’t remember Washington’s slaves — the memorial at Mount Vernon proves that we do. But when it comes to history, a picture cannot tell the whole truth.

Still, there’s a more concerning element to the law students’ agenda here. As I’ve noted before, colleges are supposed to be unsafe-philosophical places — realms of unrestrained debate and contemplation. But on its website, Reclaim Harvard Law has other ideas.

What’s really at stake here is Harvard Law’s intellectual credibility and history’s role in informing minds on campus.

First, the group demands the law school “provide adequate contextualization in curricula, educate its professors, its staff, and its students around cultural competency.” We are not told what “cultural competency” actually means, and thus must assume that Reclaim Harvard Law will define it for us. Second, the group calls on the law school to “allocate at least $5 million to establish the Critical Race Theory Program” (a nice pay packet for somebody!) and “amend student evaluations to account for implicit bias and include questions regarding whether professors contextualize material” (an indirect call for chilling academic speech).

Reclaim Harvard Law takes on a Robespierre-esque tone with its demand for a “Committee on Diversity and Inclusion,” for which “the administration shall provide the Committee with significant financial and institutional support to carry out its mandate” (read: coercive power).

Regardless, in these deliberately overbroad terms, Reclaim Harvard Law’s student-activists are evidencing their fine reading of legal writing but also their underlying arrogance. After all, these demands show that the agitation against the Harvard Law’s venerable crest is only a metaphor for their deeper agenda of ideological purity. Assured of their unique enlightenment, Reclaim Harvard Law is weaponizing anger towards restricting intellectual freedom on campus. It’s Maoism with less killing.

Sadly, Reclaim Harvard Law’s students only bear part of the blame for their arrogant delusions. As I noted recently, the preponderance of far-left philosophy at U.S. colleges has fostered a narrowing of the mind. Having read too much Marx, Gramsci and Said, many students believe they’re at war against malicious oppression. But in the absence of obvious oppression, they are forced to create a centering focus for their purposelessness. And so we find ourselves with a controversy about a crest.

Of course, in reminding us of human immorality (his slave ownership) and beneficence (his endowment), and judged in light of Harvard Law’s history, Isaac Royall’s crest represents honesty. And with honesty being the fundamental underpinning of the law, his crest is worth defending.

Tom Rogan is a Senior Contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.