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Against the Conduct Pledge

After we described the current draft of the College’s Pledge of Conduct yesterday, a professor wrote in with a withering comment:

The best that I can say for “the pledge” is that it is not a complete self-parody.

The very idea of a “pledge” seems silly and mildly fascistic: are students allowed to dissent from the terms of the pledge, to revise it, to delete and to add as their convictions dictate? Or are they meant to recite it mindlessly, in unison? Shall we sing the pledge together around the Camp Dartmouth campfire, maybe with someone strumming a Pete Seeger tune? We l-e-a-r-n together! We t-e-a-c-h one another! We l-o-v-e, love, each other!”

The pledge quietly sends this message to students: “don’t think for yourselves, think what people tell you to think. Here, we’ve put it in a handy pledge for you to recite.” Perhaps students will resist? Perhaps they will get subversive, and think for themselves? If they do, maybe the pledge will it strike them as it strikes me: a mix of worthy but plainly obvious notions, politically-correct shibboleths, and insipid self-congratulation? I don’t see the word, “excellence” anywhere in it (as in “strive for”). But then excellence is an exclusionary concept that necessarily implies the possibility of failure. Better not mention it. But I do see diversity. Check.

The last stanza seems particularly silly, with its warm and fuzzy incantations of community. We create knowledge together? Yes, research is a collaborative endeavor. But learning is also lonely and there is no getting around this painful fact: learning is the student studying ancient Greek in the corner of the library, the student who isn’t going out tonight because she has to work on her thesis, the student who gets up at 5am to go to the lab. To say we create knowledge together is a bit like saying, “we get in shape together.” Yes, we get “together” at the gym, but in the end, you have to lift those weights on your own.

We in the university value an “honest and civil exchange of ideas” not because it “makes for an inclusive community.” It may or it may not—sometimes an honest exchange places stress on an “inclusive community.” We value honest, full, and frank—and civil—exchange because it leads to truth. Truth is a higher value for the university than inclusion, though it may be a lower value for (even a threat to) the community. I don’t see the word “truth” anywhere in this pledge. Nor would I expect to, because the pledge has been sanitized of everything that might invite controversy. It would never invoke a suspect concept like truth—someone might object!

Somewhere out in the land is a first-year high school student, or maybe a sophomore or junior. She’s smart and she thinks for herself and has too much spirit to mindlessly recite things because she was told to. She would wonder about the moral character of those who need to take a “pledge” to remind themselves to act with integrity and to treat others with dignity and respect. She’s going to come to Dartmouth a few years hence. She will have heard nothing about the storms that have swirled over higher education (and Dartmouth) these past few years. But when she gets here, she will find her intelligence and character insulted by the Dartmouth Pledge. And she will refuse to take it—to say it, or to sign it. I hope she enrolls in my class.

Addendum: The NYT had a piece in 2009 about an ethics pledge that Harvard B-school students could recite, if they chose, at graduation. And in 2011, Harvard introduced a Freshman Pledge. Of course, at Harvard in September 2014 you could get a green plastic mug if you pledged to compost and use the mug to reduce waste on campus. However, as of today’s date, I could not find any evidence on the Harvard website that the above pledges were still being spoken in Cambridge.

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