Harvey Claflin Mansfield Jr., professor of government at Harvard University, is offensive and proud of it. He refers to “so-called” rape culture as a “consequence of sexual liberation.” He says, “it seems to me that the gay person is unconventional. He isn’t like other people entirely — and it’s also a difference that is a misfortune.” In 1993, he testified in favor of an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that would prevent queer people from becoming a protected class. During the testimony, when asked whether he believes the acceptance of homosexuality would undermine human civilization, he replied in the affirmative. He believes that the arrival of black students at Harvard was a factor in the emergence of grade inflation. When asked whether women and men have different mental capacities, specifically at the highest levels of science, he said “it’s probably true. It’s common sense if you just look at who the top scientists are.” He calls himself anti-feminist, and to drive the point home, wrote an entire book defending the ideal of manliness.
The list goes on. Harvey Claflin Mansfield Jr., professor of government at Harvard University, is racist, homophobic and misogynist. And today, my classmates and I are required to hear him speak at a mandatory Directed Studies event.
I believe that the mandatory nature of this event, as well as the fact that Mansfield was chosen as the first speaker for the series of colloquia, sends a message to all Directed Studies students who are not straight white men that, as much as the program’s directors have worked to demonstrate its inclusionary nature, it is still very much a space where we are not valued.
I want to make it clear that I believe reasoned discourse is necessary. Democracy does not thrive when views are left unchallenged, and I consider open-mindedness a virtue that I constantly work to uphold. However, philosophical and political disputes should be separated from views that dehumanize others. Mansfield’s beliefs fall into the second camp. His views are undeniably bigoted, and it is emotionally draining to have to engage with him. I should not have to prove my worth as a human just because Harvey Mansfield believes I am less intelligent than my male peers.
Some might argue that Harvey Mansfield’s social politics, while regrettable, are separate from his lectures on Plato and Aristotle. But his beliefs, including the most heinous ones, stem from his reading of the “Great Books” of the Western Canon. For example, in his book “Manliness,” he cites Aristotle’s works to make the point that “weaker than men, women have to be indirect in getting what they want; they cannot simply insist.” Testifying in Colorado for an amendment that would ban protections for queer people, he said “I’ve read … Plato, Freud and Tocqueville. I had a conversation with a gay student once. Being gay is not a life that makes for happiness.” All of Mansfield’s beliefs, then, are intertwined; his readings of the Directed Studies curriculum fuel his hateful politics. Yale students should not be subjected to his views under the false premise that his reading of Socrates is politically neutral.
In an email sent out to the entire program, a professor expressed his hope that “students will formulate questions so penetrating that they’ll persuade the speaker to question himself.” However, this hope pins the burden of proving Mansfield wrong on the students themselves, students who belong to communities that he has belittled and expressed prejudice towards. Moreover, if decades of questions haven’t convinced Harvey Mansfield to reconsider his beliefs, my questions at a colloquium certainly won’t. So what’s the point of making us go?
Some of my readers will defend Mansfield’s “free speech.” I am not disagreeing. Mansfield has every right to give speeches and publish books, and while I object strongly to his views, I cannot argue for the unconstitutionality of him doing so. However, Directed Studies also has the right to choose which speakers to bring to campus and which ideas to amplify. The program reaches out directly to speakers, which means that a conscious decision was made to elevate his voice as the first one that students in the program encounter.
Choosing to participate in Directed Studies was not an easy decision; it took me until the end of my first “Historical and Political Thought” class to decide. My professor took time at the end of class to speak to us about the notable absence of female voices on the syllabus. He divided those who engage with historical texts into three categories: those who wholeheartedly appreciate the canon and disregard the voices that are absent; those who refuse to read the canon because of the absence of such voices; and those who read the canon, appreciate it while being conscious of the missing voices and use the knowledge they accumulated to engage with other works. In other words, there are problems with the Directed Studies syllabus, but those problems should not be enough to merit avoiding the program. He hoped that we would fall in the final category — that we would grapple with and discuss the problems inherent in the program and in looking at the Western Canon in a vacuum — but would also be able to appreciate the program as it is and the “Great Books” for their contributions to society. However, this view is only possible if it is reciprocated by the program itself. Does Directed Studies care about me? By hosting Harvey Mansfield at a mandatory colloquium, Directed Studies has proven that they do not.
Madison Hahamy is a first year in Grace Hopper College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .