Should Harvard Teach the Golden Rule?

We’re no strangers to sibling rivalry (read: all-out brawls) in our household, so when my mother came to visit not long ago, she quickly realized that our kids needed a lesson in how to treat each other.

From her perch on the sofa after dinner, she looked over at her two bickering grandchildren and said, “I think both of you need to practice the Golden Rule.”

They stopped mid-pummel and stared at her.

“What’s that?” Jessie asked.

“Golden what?” William said.

“You’ve never heard of the Golden Rule?” she asked in amazement, then eyed me as I hastily slunk off to the kitchen.

“The Golden Rule,” she explained, “says, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ — it means that you should treat others they way you want them to treat you.”

“So if someone is mean to you,” Jessie said, “you should be mean to them?”

Suffice it to say, we continue to work on our understanding of the Golden Rule. Sometimes we succeed: The hugs flow, the spontaneous sharing of Japanese erasers erupts, the signs reading “Do Not Enter — especially if your name starts with a J!!!” fly off the doors.

But often we fail, and the house takes on the look and sound of a chicken coop with a fox running through it. As the kids claw and kick, accuse and yell, I issue time-outs and steady myself with the sober words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In other words, we will get there, but it just might take a while.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying how happy I was to hear that even Harvard struggles with making its kids play nice. In a move that spawned a surprising (to me, anyway) backlash, the university is asking incoming students to sign a pledge of kindness.

Harvard hasn’t said why it deemed such a pledge necessary. Could it be that our generation of parents is so busy carting our offspring to karate classes and soccer games, laboring with them over piles of homework, and monitoring their Body Mass Indexes, text messaging minutes, and screen time that we’ve neglected to teach them the Golden Rule?

The pledge, according to Harvard professor Harry Lewis’ Bits and Pieces blog, reads as follows:

At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows, and Overseers that “each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society.” That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on a par with intellectual attainment.

Them’s not exactly fighting words, yet some are crying violation of freedom. But how could encouraging kindness be a bad thing? Just sign the pledge, and be nice. And while you’re at it, why not give your sister a call and tell her you didn’t mean all that stuff you said when you were kids? Tell your brother you’re sorry for starting so many brawls.

Your parents will feel better about not explicitly teaching you some of the things they were supposed to teach you, and they’ll be relieved to know you turned out all right anyway.