The Real Scandal of Campus Protest

Erik Baker, a lecturer in History of Science at Harvard and a former organizer with the Harvard Graduate Students Union, was among them. He delivered these remarks at a teach-in hours after students began gathering, reflecting on the meaning of this moment of campus activism.

Erik Baker in the Boston Review: One of the courses I teach is called “Science, Activism, and Political Conflict,” and one of my ambitions with that course is to show students that both of these things—activism and political conflict—are normal in science, and in academic life more generally. That’s a theme that we like to emphasize when speaking in “defense” of student protest. It’s part of a storied tradition, it’s respectable, it’s normal. But in order to explain why I think what you all are doing is so important, I want to start today by saying that actually, student protest is nowhere near normal enough in the history of higher education in this country. The real scandal is not that there has been student protest. It is that there has not been much, much more of it.

There was no student protest, for instance, when colleges in both the North and South financed their establishment and expansion with the profits of slavery in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. That very much includes the Ivy League, and it includes this school of ours as well. “Slavery permeated almost everything about Harvard’s early history,” Sven Beckert said in 2022 after the release of the report of the Presidential Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. Outside Wadsworth House you can now find a plaque commemorating four enslaved people—Titus, Venus, Bilhah, and Juba—owned by two Harvard presidents, Benjamin Wadsworth and Edward Holyoke, in the early eighteenth century. There were no student protests against their bondage. And if Titus, Venus, Bilhah, or Juba had revolted against their masters, we must imagine that Harvard authorities would have availed themselves of the violence of law enforcement to repress their resistance—one more crime, surely, for which today’s leadership would express regret.

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.

There was no student protest at the Morrill Act of 1862, which systematized the practice of expropriating land from Indigenous nations in order to fund the establishment of so-called “land grant” schools around the country. If you walk a bit along the Charles River you’ll find one of them. The money that MIT and fifty-one other colleges raised from this stolen land is still on the books in their endowment funds today. Some of the land that MIT profited from was taken from the Dakota Nation in the new U.S. state of Minnesota. There, in the year the Morrill Act was enacted, in the midst of ongoing genocide, a faction of Dakota warriors killed several hundred civilian settlers and took several hundred more hostage. In response, the governor of the state, Alexander Ramsey, called for the Dakota to “be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the State.” To my knowledge, there were no student protests at any of the land-grant institutions of the intensification of Indigenous genocide that followed.

There was also no student protest at schools like Harvard in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the life sciences at many elite universities became dedicated, in large part, to the study of eugenics and the alleged science of racial difference. Former Harvard president Charles William Eliot declared forthrightly in 1912: “There should be no blending of races.” Harvard Magazine itself has reported, accurately, that “Harvard was more central to American eugenics than any other university.” That article goes on to describe eugenics as “tragically misguided,” which I suppose is correct in one sense, although a considerable understatement. But in another sense it is wrong to call it misguided: Harvard’s eugenicists were mistaken about the science, of course, but they were right to see a commitment to eugenics as the logical implication of their most deeply held values and assumptions about the world. Their belief in innate, biologically inscribed hierarchies of human worth was not an innocent mistake but an expression of their view that the social hierarchy they benefited from was just and in need of active policing. Harvard students, at that time, were drawn almost exclusively from families already near the top of that social hierarchy and were anxious to cement their place in the American elite…

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