Harvard then and now

Yesterday Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute wrote us to offer two thoughts apropos of Ward Churchill:

First, “freedom of speech” on most major university campuses nowadays is a fraud. When America’s greatest living historian of the antebellum south, Stephan Thernstrom [of Harvard], is prevented from teaching that course [“The Peopling of America”] because black students protest against a white man teaching it, you know that free speech is over. I work at a place staffed with people who should, by the quality of their work, be in major university chairs, but they are not because the universities do not want people with those ideas. So nobody should think that there’s “freedom of speech” to defend. It would be nice, but the most one could say is that we are against firing people just because they are either evil or stupid. But then we should also say that the university has already demonstrated its incompetence by hiring him and giving tenure to him.
Second, the obvious grounds on which to terminate Churchill are not the stupidity and the noxiousness of his ideas, but his fraudulent claim to be something he isn’t. That sort of thing has often been used to fire even tenured professors.

The events regarding Professor Thernstrom to which Dr. Ledeen alludes are recounted at pages 194-197 of Illiberal Education by Dinesh D’Souza. In 1988 three students accused Professor Thernstrom of “racial insensitivity” in teaching his “Peopling of America” course as a result of his discussion of Jim Crow laws and his quotation from Southern plantation journals in a lecture. The response of the Harvard administration to the students’ baseless charges against him left Professor Thernstrom profoundly unsatisfied:

I felt like a rape victim, and yet the silence of the administration seemed to give the benefit of the doubt to the students who attacked me. Maybe I was naive, but I expected the university to come to my defense. I mean, that’s what academic freedom is about, isn’t it? Instead I was left out there by myself, guilty without being proven guilty. I could not even defend myself, because the charge of racism and racial insensitivity is ultimately unanswerable.

Professor Thernstrom decided for the foreseeable future not to offer his “Peopling of America” course. “It just isn’t worth it,” he said. “Professors who teach race issues encounter such a culture of hostility, among some students, that some of these questions are simply not teachable any more, at least not in an honest, critical way.”
The recent events involving Lawrence Summers provide an interesting update on the 1988 events involving Professor Thernstrom. Now instead of an eminent Harvard professor who is rendered defenseless, it is the eminent Harvard president. Now instead of the students who are behaving in a manner unconducive to free academic inquiry, it is the professors. Times have changed, apparently for the worse.
UPDATE: In his days as a graduate student, the Rocket Prof served as a teaching assistant in Professor Thernstrom’s “Peopling of America” course. He writes to note that Professor Thernstrom is not an expert in the “antebellum South,” but rather that his two justly famous monographs are about Newburyport and Boston. In addition, I think it should be noted that Professor Thernstrom’s expertise extends substantially beyond the social history of Massachusetts, as suggested, among other things, by the invaluable book he co-authored with Abigail Thernstrom, America In Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, and by the important volume he edited, The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups.


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