Harvard's so-called 'white privilege' class

Harvard crew compete in a regatta in 2008. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Harvard students aren't going to be required to undergo mandatory "white privilege" training

It was the kind of story tailor-made for the right-wing echo chamber. Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government wanted all its first-year students to attend a mandatory orientation session to consider their "power and privilege". To "check it", even.

After all, just a few weeks ago Princeton freshman Tal Fortgang became a cause celebre on the right with his college newspaper essay - reprinted in Time magazine - in which he refused to apologise for his economic and race-based privilege, arguing that it was the result of the hard work of his forebears.

The only problem, it seems, is that the Harvard story is not exactly accurate.

In the latest round of what has been an increasingly contentious debate about class- and race-based identity in US society, New York magazine's Kat Stoeffel wrote an article about a Harvard government school activist group, HKS Speak Out, that claimed the administration agreed to incorporate training - she originally wrote that it was a "class" - in understanding privilege as part of its new student orientation.

"Checking Your Privilege 101", Stoeffel called it - a line that caught on so quickly that a few subsequent news stories appeared to think that was the actual name of a class.

She quoted Reetu Mody, a first-year master's student pushing for the new requirement, who served up some red meat for conservatives intent on finding examples of Ivy League liberal bias.

"We're at one of the most powerful institutions in the world, yet we never critically examine power and privilege and what it means to have access to this power," Ms Mody told Stoeffel.

Stoeffel explained how the drive to add the training first began:

Mody and other students began to organise for privilege training in the fall, when they bonded over their shared experiences of classroom hostility toward racial critiques. (Mody herself once walked out of a class on implicit cognitive biases when the professor told her, "This isn't a discussion about racism.")

The group held meetings to share stories of "racial insensitivity" and created a webpage to allow students to anonymously discuss their experiences.

Ms Mody said that privilege awareness is an essential part of an Ivy League education:

If you don't have an understanding of sociology, political science, critical race theory, feminist critique and revisionist history, it's going to be very difficult to talk about certain groups' experiences, and why these other groups continually have this advantage in society.

Conservatives responded with indignation. Harvard is making "white privilege training mandatory", wrote the Daily Caller in its article headline. The story was picked up by the Drudge Report. Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly dedicated a segment of his television programme to the topic, calling Harvard's reported "far-left" orientation session "inherently racist".

Noah Rothman of Mediaite said that ivory tower redoubts like Harvard were threatened by Fortgang's much-publicised essay:

Higher education is now engaged in a petulant circling of the wagons around the bankrupt notion that the accidents of birth absolve one of fault for their failures or rob them of responsibility for their successes.

The American Thinker's Rick Moran says that while there is "nothing wrong" with challenging "personal assumptions about race and privilege," that's not what Ms Mody was suggesting:

The problem becomes apparent when, as the young activist so perfectly illustrates, one disagrees with the dominant racial narrative that everyone is a racist - even if they are unaware of it on a conscious level - and that such attitudes must be exposed, criticised, and eventually expunged - even to the point of suppressing speech.

On Wednesday Harvard tried to throw cold water on the controversy.

"There appears to be false information in the media being conveyed by reporters who have not contacted Harvard Kennedy School officials to verify the accuracy of the information," Kennedy School director of media relations Doug Gavel wrote in a statement.

"Contrary to one article that has been picked up by others, the school is not planning to offer classes, coursework, or sessions devoted specifically to 'power and privilege'."

He wrote in an email to the BBC that the administration had "told the students categorically" that it had "no intention of offering" such a mandatory session.

He added:

We have conveyed that we are committed to revamping our current session on diversity offered at orientation to something that will help students better understand the broad impact of identity on their decision making as future policy makers and equip them with the tools necessary to engage in constructive dialogue.

On Friday morning, HKS Speak Out issued a press release in which it reasserted that the school administration had agreed to a "required session during orientation", although it employed the same "broad impact of identity" language used by Mr Gavel.

"HKS Speak Out firmly believes that without understanding the socio-historical context of power, students cannot become effective policymakers," the release states.

One need only look at the firestorm generated by the New York magazine story to see that the phrase "check your privilege" and even the word privilege itself have moved outside the realm of rational discussion.

It's not surprising, then, that Harvard has been reluctant to connect the term to whatever changes it may be making to its orientation programme. (For an interesting interview with the Wellesley professor who popularised the label in the 1980s, see this New Yorker article.)

Most people who get into Harvard's prestigious Kennedy School could be called "privileged", as the programme churns out politicians and public policy leaders the way Kentucky does NBA basketball players. A little acknowledgement of that status, and an understanding of the responsibility it brings, would be welcomed by many.

But that kind of discussion does not appear to be possible in today's highly charged partisan climate. A single article goes online, and it is unquestioningly repeated throughout the internet in a modern media game of "telephone".

Maybe Harvard can make it a case study in a new class, "The decline and fall of modern US political debate 101".

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