The Magazine


Mar 25, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 27 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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The truth is just the opposite. It is easy to indulge "other significant values" than excellence and to pretend that nothing has happened and that our patron saint John Stuart Mill would smile on us. What is hard is to sustain excellence against the temptation of other values that appear to be more significant.

The other value most in evidence in American education today is self-esteem. Instead of holding students to "rigorous academic standards," our schools and universities aim to make their charges feel good about themselves and their ethnic identities. Harvard, where the average grade of all courses is above B plus, is a full participant-no, a leader -- in feel-good education

It would be pleasing to think that President Rudenstine wants to oppose this noxious trend and to replace diversity for the sake of self-esteem and group identity with diversity for excellence. That is what Harvard's tradition, properly understood, would endorse. But he simply does not discuss diversity as usually seen on the agenda of multiculturalism. He does not appreciate, or fears to say, that it takes an effort, indeed a battle, to recapture and restore diversity as an instrument of excellence. So he leaves it unclear whether Harvard's purpose is to educate blacks or represent them proportionately and improve their self-esteem. The result is not only to confirm the ascendancy of self-esteem but also to give it the legitimacy of seeming excellence, as if the two were the same. A more full-hearted, forthright defense of affirmative action might carry conviction. This one helps me to conclude that the policy is probably, and rightly, done for.

Harvey Mansfield is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of government at Harvard.