Education

The Interview: Harvey Mansfield

Warning: This interview may offend you. And Harvey Mansfield, Harvard’s most controversial conservative professor, couldn’t care less.
Harvey Mansfield

Courtesy Photo

Much has changed since Harvey Mansfield arrived at Harvard in 1949. The university went coed and campus politics have drifted left. Yet Mansfield, the famously outspoken conservative professor who’s hard at work on a book about political parties, remains unchanged—blasting the university for grade inflation and dismissing “so-called rape culture.” He’s taught a generation of political pundits, from Andrew Sullivan to Bill Kristol, but on today’s campus, is Mansfield’s conservatism an antiquated relic, or an invaluable source of ideological diversity? “I’m not running for office,” Mansfield says. “I can afford to take a dispassionate view that doesn’t bow to fashionable opinion.”

Let’s put politics aside for the moment. You arrived at Harvard in 1949 as a student. How has the school changed since then?

Perhaps altogether there’s more continuity than change. It was number one then. It is still, by less of a margin, number one today. It still gets the best undergraduate students in America. It’s grown in size but not substantially, or not yet. But then, of course, there have been some big changes. Coeducation is perhaps the greatest.

How so?

Coeducation, living with and eating with women, has a calming effect or a taming effect on the male. Today’s Harvard men are premature husbands. Men, especially young men, are afraid of making fools of themselves in front of women. So the presence of a woman diminishes their spiritedness. Still, on the other hand, there are great advantages to having women around. Association with them is less formal, less reserved, less artificial than it was in my time. In my time, you had to import a woman [laughs]. Either you went to Radcliffe, which was for weekdays, or you imported somebody from Wellesley, or even farther—perhaps you even put a woman up at a hotel to be your date for that weekend.

What is a premature husband?

A premature husband is someone who is always looking at a woman to make sure he is not going to incur grave criticism. It is a guy who has his eye on feminine criticism and worries about that. Some people feel it more than others, of course.

Did you identify as a conservative when you were on campus as an undergrad?

I was a liberal through college. My father was a New Deal Democrat who went to Washington during World War II—he was also a political scientist. So both my father and mother were New Dealers. But they watched me turn conservative in the ’50s, mostly over the communist issue. I thought liberals were soft on communism and that was my main objection to them.

Looking back, do you still think liberals were too soft on communism?

I am afraid I do.

Were you vocal on campus about your politics?

No, I wasn’t vocal about it. Only in the dining halls and in fun arguments. It was not testy or heated or nasty. But that all changed in the late 1960s. Going back to what has changed at Harvard—that’s what changed.

What specifically changed?

It was the arrival of the New Left—a position close to Marxism with a mixture of Nietzsche. The guru of it was Herbert Marcuse, a man whose writings combined Marx and Freud. There was economics to it, but even more than economics there was a psychology of liberation. So the late ’60s was, above all, I think, a movement of liberation, especially sexual liberation, but also liberation from duties in general. From thinking of yourself as a citizen, to say nothing of a patriot. And it was directed mainly against liberalism.

How so?

At that time, conservatism was not a great intellectual force and not a great presence on the campuses. But people who were in charge were what today would be called Cold War liberals. It was directed against Lyndon Johnson, it was not directed against Nixon or Eisenhower. And it was directed not incidentally against the university. Universities were complicit in this—they were just as bad as the policymakers because they influenced and justified the policymakers. And all of this was directed at something called “the establishment.” It was in the late ’60s that the phrase was first formulated and used, and that phrase has come again to haunt us today.

Do you see parallels between the campuses of the ’60s and the campuses of today?

There is a parallel. It is much less vigorous or violent than it was in the ’60s—violence both of deed and speech. Today we’re seeing a kind of resurrection of thoughts and actions of the late ’60s without the depth of passion and anger. When I tell students today about the late ’60s they can hardly believe what was done. And the ’60s had a lasting impression. Though Marxism disappeared and devotion to Nietzsche and violence for its own sake can no longer be found, sexual liberation is still with us and so is the greater authority of youth and students. Grade inflation is a great sign of this.

It is?

Harvard students expect to get the same grades they got in high school. You have to get all As in high school to get into Harvard. In my time, what happened was in your freshman year at Harvard you started getting Cs and B-minuses in a way you had never seen before, and it was because you were in competition with people who were also getting all As in high school. Today, getting a B is like a stab to the gut. There are essentially three grades at Harvard: B-plus, A-minus, and A. And the most frequently given grade at Harvard is a straight A. And the median grade is A-minus and that’s because you can’t go higher than A. By no means is it just Harvard doing this. It is typical. But Harvard is the top of typical. For a while we were giving 91 percent honors at graduation. It wasn’t an honor to get honors; it was just a dishonor not to.

But do you think grade inflation is actually leading to a lower caliber of student?

It’s leading to lower academic standards—affirmative action is part of this, too. Harvard says that its black students could get in regardless of color and race. That may be true. Harvard has a considerable fraction of black students in America who get over 700 or 800 on SATs. So we have been quite successful in that regard, but all that does is leave fewer for the other schools. But I think—and this is something I get attacked for—the coming of black students in great numbers was a factor in the arrival of grade inflation. It happened around the same time, the early ’70s. When black students arrived, they benefited from great good will, which is the passion behind affirmative action. Everyone is pulling for them. So a professor wasn’t going to give a black student a C, so if he wasn’t going to give a black student a C, he couldn’t give them to white students either. So that’s how I think the Cs disappeared. Another factor, of course, was in those days you could be drafted if you were in the lower half of your class.

What should a parent know today before sending their kid to Harvard?

They need to know that the curriculum is a mess. If you look at a typical Harvard transcript, you see courses all over the place. Often on small subjects or policy questions, instead of meat and potatoes: history, economics, philosophy. In my day, there were a few “gut” courses, which meant easy courses for athletes and prep school kids. People who were not, how should I say, academically ambitious. But now there are a whole lot of such courses and it’s easy to waste your money on something that isn’t worth it.

So the curriculum is a mess and the sexual scene is a mess. The sexual scene is one in which “sexual adventure,” if I can put it that way, is expected, even though it doesn’t always materialize. And when it does materialize, it can often be misadventure. I think the so-called rape culture that people talk about now is a consequence of sexual liberation. Plus, it is the inevitable effect of sexual misadventure. Loveless sex is not as great as it’s cracked up to be. Especially not for women, as it seems in women’s sexuality that they find it much more difficult to walk away from an encounter than a man does without being upset.

What do you mean by that?

The meaning of rape is much expanded in accordance with the feminist author Catharine MacKinnon. Any kind of male advance or initiative is regarded as violating or a violation. The whole idea of safe space, was, I think, invented by her. I think it’s just an inherent contradiction of feminism. It wants to be for sexual liberation, because sexual liberation means equality with the male sex, at long last. But that equality, it turns out, doesn’t work or they’re not so pleased with it. Sexual liberation is really much for the advantage of males. And women think that they’ve been liberated when they’re actually playing a man’s game and losing. So that is what I think rape culture amounts to. There’s a lot of pushy men. It’s harder and harder to say no because if you say no, you’re a prude. There’s no backing from the faculty, from the mores, from the churches, from reality, to a woman’s ability to say no. It much more depends on her courage and her good sense than used to be the case.

Do you ever use trigger warnings in the classroom?

I’ve never used them. I mean, if I’m going to use a four-letter word, I usually apologize before doing it. Or a dirty joke, which I occasionally tell, but only when there’s a good political point to be found in it. But that one should use a trigger warning as a way of respecting students’ unwillingness to take up certain questions—that I think is very bad. They want a warning that if you come into this course, the doctrine of sexual liberation may be questioned. You may hear something you disagree with. That kind of trigger warning I totally oppose. But if it’s something that is against common morality, then yes. Often on the first day of the course, you can give students a warning, which is meant to be actually an attraction. I warn you that some of your most cherished beliefs will be questioned. That’s meant to make it sound good.

You once said that on the campus, “Balance is what conservatives give and diversity is what liberals supply.” What do you mean by that?

I once had an offer from the University of Chicago. My Harvard chair came to me and said, “Harvey, you mustn’t go. You are our balance.” So a conservative supplies balance, while a liberal supplies diversity. When they say “diversity appointment” or “we need more diversity,” that always means more liberals of different colors or wearing skirts.

Do you take offense at being identified as the balance?

No. If I took offense to things like that, I wouldn’t have any friends. I’m not embattled. Everybody at Harvard is good to me. The reason everybody is good to me is they think that my existence proves that everything I say is wrong.

Is the tenure system flawed?

It is flawed, but it is also an asset. I’m not opposed to it the way some conservatives are, and that’s because I’ve lived with it. I use my tenure by saying unpopular things. Most professors will say unpopular things against other scholars in the classroom. But on public issues, they tend to be retired and reserved. And that’s what one would expect of a scholar; not a passionate person, but a person who’s careful, makes judgments slowly, is able to revise them and doesn’t get out on the street and shout. All of that is what changed in the late ’60s. That’s part of what is meant by the politicization of the university. Professors are much more openly political, but they are openly political when there are not great risks for them. It doesn’t take courage to denounce President Trump at Harvard [laughs].

You were recently on sabbatical, working on a book about political parties. What’s the focus?

It’s about our two parties, and I’m interested in the temperaments and the attitudes that make up these parties. This is quite different from political science; most political science looks at what is behind the ideas, and what interests you have that cause you to vote the way that you do. So they’re interested in making these causal judgments through surveys, which are supposed to be careful, nonpartisan, and scientific. But they don’t really tell you that the two parties, for example, argue with each other. It isn’t just that they are in conflict—they argue. Everything that each party says is directed against something that the other party says. When we were listening to Obama’s last State of the Union address, every paragraph was against the Republicans or the Bush administration that preceded his. And it’s the same thing with the Republicans now. It’s constant reference to the enemy.

Would you say that Trump sort of mastered tapping into voters’ temperaments?

He appealed to people whom he identified, I think correctly, as forgotten or overlooked. People who were standing in line, waiting for good things to happen, waiting to share in the American dream, and they kept watching one group after another step ahead of them.

What does Trump’s rise mean for conservatism?

Trump’s election was, I think, among other things, a rebellion of the lower half of the IQ against the higher half. The uneducated against the educated. It makes things very difficult for conservative policymakers and for conservatives. Conservatives take pride in being the party of ideas. They’ve exchanged places with liberals, who are now pretty much the party of the status quo. And it’s Republicans and conservatives who want reform and change. And here comes [Trump], this guy who cares nothing about principles, and his policies seem to be improvised and impulsive. And he hijacks the Republican Party. So it’s a terrible defeat for them.

Did you expect Trump to win?

No. I didn’t see him coming. I kept thinking he would lose. I was always wrong, as my wife likes to remind me.

What do you make of Trump calling everything he doesn’t like “fake news” and taking to Twitter constantly?

He wants a direct connection to the people, so he has big rallies and tweets, and makes sensational remarks and does things that attract attention. And that impresses people, so they think that because he’s saying bold things nobody else says that he’s telling it how it is. His attack on the press is part of his disdain for the Constitution and established forms of American democracy. And the question of his presidency is what will win: his impulsiveness or the steadiness and principles of the establishment?

Let’s talk about Harvard presidents. You’ve seen quite a few come and go. How do you assess President Drew Gilpin Faust’s time at the helm?

She has been less of a feminist than I feared she would be, so she is above what I expected. As presidents go, she has been successful—good at fundraising and she made all of the university pleased with her. But she hasn’t done anything to reform Harvard, to make it offer a more demanding education, and she has participated in this slow decline from veritas to change. Our motto is truth, but we now interpret that as adjusting to the changes of society. That is an essentially passive goal, which is conformist.

At 85 years old, do you ever wonder if you’ve spent too much time at Harvard? Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if you had gone to Chicago or pursued something else?

I really only had that one opportunity with Chicago [laughs]. I would have perhaps thought of running for office but I don’t think I’d be very good at that. I would have liked to spend a year or two in Washington just to get wrapped up in the game of politics. But nobody in Washington wants a political philosopher. You have to have some type of specialty—policy expertise. So no, I never regret not leaving Harvard. It’s good here. The students are great, the faculty is okay, and the administration is about average.

How will you know when it’s time to walk away?

I’ll call it quits when I have too many senior moments, or when I see I’m not interesting or attractive to students. And I try to be careful and watch for that. It’s easy to make excuses for yourself.


Chris Sweeney Chris Sweeney, Senior Editor at Boston Magazine csweeney@bostonmagazine.com