‘Kindness pledge’ produces no change
In an effort to foster good behavior on campus, Harvard is asking its first-year students to make what is termed by some the “Kindness Pledge.” To quote the brief pledge in full: “As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to make the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.” It is a nice enough sentiment, but that is all it seems to be: A nice sentiment, not a comprehensive program that seeks to bring about any real positive social change. But the pledge was criticized on harsher grounds than mere ineffectuality. Former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis went as far as to say the pledge, “is a promise to control one’s thoughts.”
On the subject of the pledge’s inefficacy, we must admit we cannot say with any certainty the pledge will not inspire anyone to act more kindly in their daily lives. We can, however, say this pledge seems to be a rather weak step toward a more respectful campus environment. Compare this pledge to the University’s own Project Civility, which was a massive initiative toward creating and maintaining an open, kind, civil atmosphere on campus and elsewhere. By contrast, Harvard’s pledge is a brief paragraph students are asked to acknowledge. Will such a paragraph really push students toward the same level of active community participation Project Civility did? That seems highly unlikely at best and utterly impossible at worst.
We also agree with Lewis’ statements regarding the pledge as a “promise to control one’s thoughts.” The pledge does not ask students to engage with their environments. It does not ask students to engage in serious discourse on issues of kindness. It does not even suggest any actual methods of action for students to take. Instead, it merely tells students to be kind, thereby implicitly asking them to act in accordance to certain established ideas of kindness. But something like “kindness” is not subject to hard and fast regulations. It is often addressed case by case. If Harvard wants its students to be kind, it should perhaps elevate kindness from the status of a vague generalization and add some concrete weight to it.
This is not meant to be a condemnation of Harvard. If anything, we’re glad to see any educational institution adopt an ethos of kindness. We just hope that Harvard considers the pledge a first step and not an ultimate solution.