A dean at the university tells graduates all success stems from inherited privilege and chance.
It’s college graduation season, when high-profile commencement speakers are scrutinized as barometers of academia’s ideological leanings. A speech by Harvard College’s dean this year suggests you learn more when a school bureaucrat articulates the worldview that shapes campus culture than when a celebrity jets in, collects an honorarium and leaves.
Rakesh Khurana opened his Class Day speech to graduating seniors with a summary of the changes at Harvard over the previous four years. He omitted two in which he played a central role: the removal of law professor Ronald Sullivan from oversight of an undergraduate dorm and the effort to banish single-sex social clubs. Mr. Sullivan’s legal representation of rape defendant Harvey Weinstein had put the “well-being” of Harvard’s students at risk, Mr. Khurana announced earlier this year, and the single-sex clubs perpetuated “spaces that are rife with power imbalances.”
Power imbalances were a big theme of Mr. Khurana’s remarks. He proposed to “interrogate” what it means to deserve something, whether being at Harvard or being successful in life. The “capitalist ethos,” according to Mr. Khurana, tells us that “we deserve to win because of our skill, our hard work, and our contributions.” Mr. Khurana—who is also a professor of business and of sociology—claimed to be mystified by that belief. In Monopoly, the board game Mr. Khurana called synonymous with the capitalist system, it’s the roll of the dice that determines “whether we land on Park Place or land in jail.” Monopoly is like real life, he concluded, which is often determined by factors beyond our control—above all by “those privileges sociologists call ‘structural inequities.’”
In Mr. Khurana’s view, it’s time to stop using words like “deserve” and “deserving,” because they don’t account for the “systemic inequities” that play such large roles in our accomplishments. Harvard, he announced, has made progress in “acknowledging and naming the privilege” that makes the language of “deserving” so “insidious.”
Mr. Khurana also urged listeners to junk the myth of the self-made person. He told his audience to focus instead on recognizing the “increasingly dynastic transmission of political, social and economic privilege governing” life in the U.S. and to work toward a sustainable, equitable society. Fortunately, this year’s Harvard graduates had already embraced his vision for the future by selecting Al Gore—who leads us “by example to confront the challenges of our planet”—as the main Class Day speaker.
Mr. Khurana isn’t the first to notice that chance plays a significant part in human affairs. Classical philosophers promoted virtue as a defense against the whims of the goddess Fortuna. And there is little risk that anyone, especially a Harvard student, is unaware of the economic disparities that give some children a large head start in life. But Mr. Khurana overstates the rigidity of American society and understates the degree to which behavioral choices shape life trajectories.
Mr. Khurana’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from India, one of the events leading him to conclude that at least 85% of his current status is due to circumstances beyond his control. His parents presumably came to the U.S. because they saw opportunity, not “systemic inequities.” That opportunity arises from Western civilization’s accomplishments: the rule of law, property rights, freedom of expression and inquiry, and the relative absence of corruption—all matters about which Mr. Khurana was silent. This civilizational inheritance allows social mobility and wealth creation unimaginable in most of the non-Western world.
Inherited privilege or a random roll of the dice weren’t sufficient to make today’s business titans or their predecessors successful. Sergey Brin and Larry Page created Google out of a passion for discovery and an all-consuming desire to master computer engineering problems. Did they “deserve” their mathematical talent and entrepreneurial drive? The question is meaningless. But such innate gifts aren’t equally distributed. Only the most draconian government leveling could erase their effects.
Mr. Khurana accuses capitalism of fostering a “zero-sum” mentality. To the contrary, it is the socialist mind-set that insists Messrs. Brin and Page became billionaires by immiserating others, rather than by creating a product that satisfied the needs of countless people across the globe.
Since the advent of the Great Society, the U.S. has redistributed trillions of dollars without dislodging multigenerational poverty. Mr. Khurana had nothing to say about the primary cause of that poverty: family breakdown. The handicaps that accrue to children and communities when the marriage norm breaks down are the biggest impediments to greater social mobility. Avoiding out-of-wedlock childbearing massively reduces the risk of poverty; doing so is within an individual’s control.
If the concept of “deserving” is objectionable, Harvard could institute admission by lottery. In fact, the elite university believes itself capable of making minute distinctions of worth among student applicants. It has adopted a racial caste system, giving black applicants a fourfold admissions advantage over other applicants, according to the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the school. Richer black students are catapulted ahead of poorer but more academically qualified Asian-American and white students. Do those preferred students “deserve” their advantage?
Graduating from Harvard, contrary to what its students and administrators may think, is not the sine qua non of a good life. But if Mr. Khurana is so troubled by the systemic inequities that allegedly enable some Harvard students to attend, he should have directed the Class of 2019 to send their alumni donations to less-favored schools. Harvard chases alumni dollars with a zeal that is bracing to behold. It can never get enough, despite an endowment of $39 billion generated by participation in the capitalist system.
Harvard must believe it deserves that money.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion (available now). Follow her on Twitter here.
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