Harvard University, regarded as one of the world’s best post-secondary institutions, recently instituted a voluntary kindness pledge for incoming first years.
Students who sign the pledge promise to be civil to one another and respect the values of integrity and inclusivity, reported the Globe and Mail on Sept. 23.
This pledge is a meaningless exercise that’s not only inappropriate, but may also hinder learning. When first-year Harvard students arrived at their residence buildings in September their residence supervisors invited them to sign the pledge.
It centres on the belief that the “exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.” The Harvard Crimson reported on Sept. 1 that the pledge wasn’t motivated by a specific incident, but by worries that students aren’t “thoughtful or considerate in their actions with their peers.”
A plan to display the pledges by the front doors of each residence building was discarded when it was decided that posting pledges would shame those who didn’t sign their name.
In all, the pledge is an informal promise. Breaking the pledge carries no consequences and there are no punitive measures in place to discipline those who break their promises. It’s a superficial solution that won’t have any real effect.
Behaviour is learned and developed over years. Asking students to promise to act a certain way isn’t likely to change their personalities. The pledge is a silly idea that patronizes students, assuming incivility.
The pledge is an attempt by the administration to control students’ personal behaviour — a concerning concept. A university administration’s demands should be limited to students’ academic conduct. It’s simply not the responsibility of the institution to control the thoughts and habits of students.
Pledges should be taken seriously, just as when doctors take the Hippocratic Oath or when police officers pledge to serve and protect. Harvard’s kindness pledge doesn’t measure up to these promises.
Harvard’s motto is “Veritas,” Latin for truth, implying that the pursuit of truth is a student’s highest calling. When students pledge to be kind, truth might be sacrificed due to its consequences.
In a class discussion where opinions might be wildly different, does the pledge ask students to refrain from being critical of one another’s perspectives because of the effect it may have on personal feelings?
If so, it’s counteractive to the university’s goal of providing the best education possible. Harvard’s kindness pledge is a weak attempt to alter the way people interact with one another.
If the university administration wanted to change the campus culture, they should’ve provided a meaningful lesson and not a pledge of empty words.
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