Uncongeniality contest

Interview | Two views of elite academia from Harvard Law School

Issue: "Rick Santorum: Penn Station," April 30, 2005

The three most prestigious law schools in the United States-Yale, Stanford, and Harvard-all have reputations as places uncongenial for Christians, but also places where (given their influence) it's important for Christians to be.

Two bits of evidence concerning Harvard Law alone: One-fifth of all 112 U.S. Supreme Court justices in history have graduated from there. Four of the nine sitting justices (Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Breyer) are Harvard Law grads.

Talking humbly

William Stuntz is a professor at Harvard Law School who for the past two decades has belonged to evangelical churches and worked in secular universities. He wrote recently at the www.techcentralstation.com website, "A lot of my church friends think universities represent the forces of darkness," and then quoted a faculty colleague who said, "You know, I think you're the first Christian I've ever met who isn't stupid."

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But Mr. Stuntz insists the two worlds have one thing in common: "Churches and universities are the two 21st-century American enterprises that care most about ideas."

WORLD: Many Christian professors report that deviations from political correctness bring out a professorial lynch mob. What has been your experience with Christophobia?

STUNTZ: I can honestly say that I've never been the target of any professional nastiness because of my faith. Maybe that means I'm not living a Christian life; I'm not sure. I am sure that there have been times when I've been cowardly, times when I've avoided identifying with my Redeemer for fear that someone would think I was crazy or dumb. But I think that was cowardice, not rational fear.

As for political correctness, I think that's a problem in all sectors of our culture-very much including churches. One of the great underrated problems of our time is the tendency to talk only with those who share one's views. That's a terrible disease, and it goes on everywhere. I think it goes on less in universities than in most places.

WORLD: You ask, "Who should be more committed to fighting fascist Middle Eastern dictators, conservatives or liberals?" Why do most professors oppose the war in Iraq?

STUNTZ: I think the left is in the grip of Bush hatred-just as the right was gripped by Clinton hatred a half-dozen years ago. But I also think a lot of minds are likely to be changed if Iraq emerges as a stable democracy and if, as seems possible now, democracy and freedom spread throughout the region.

WORLD: Tenured professors don't have to pay much attention to market forces, and professors generally derive benefits from government growth, either directly at state universities or through governmental grants and programs. Doesn't all that suggest an economic reason to stay with liberalism?

STUNTZ: It's an interesting observation. A century ago, academics were probably a good deal more conservative than the general population. Today, we're much more liberal. I suspect the difference has more to do with changes in elite culture than with incentives. And conservatives should recognize that some of the cultural change has been very good: For example, today, voters in rich suburbs are amazingly willing, even eager, to raise their own taxes. That strikes me as evidence of an admirable unselfishness.

WORLD: You have said that "talking humbly should be second nature" in both church and academic circles, and that humility often is genuine in church. Why is there so little of it in academia? Does intellectual pride give professors a greater-than-average propensity to be atheists?

STUNTZ: There is no doubt about it: Pride and academic life are very closely intertwined. By and large, universities are arrogant places. Even so, I think humility is actually a sizeable advantage for those who can exercise it. Universities are about the business of seeking truth and wisdom, and wisdom begins with the understanding that we know less than we think. Professors who have that understanding are likely to write better scholarship and teach better classes than those who don't.

WORLD: Do the current travails of Larry Summers, your university's president, suggest that only some ideas get a hearing on leading campuses?

STUNTZ: Current Harvard fights have more to do with university governance than with anything else. As for the supposed impossibility of getting a hearing for some ideas on campuses, I note that one of the largest and most important student organizations at Harvard Law School is the local chapter of the Federalist Society-a conservative group that has considerable power and influence in the legal profession. One of the things I like about Harvard is that you can find people from almost any point on the political spectrum. The truth is, I think Harvard-at least the law school-is more politically diverse than some churches I know.


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