The Elephant in the Room

“You’ve never been to Tenebrae, I suppose?” Cordelia asked Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s novel. “Well, if you had you’d

“You’ve never been to Tenebrae, I suppose?” Cordelia asked Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s novel. “Well, if you had you’d know what the Jews felt about their temple. Quomodo sedet sola’s a beautiful chant. You ought to go once, just to hear it.”

I had never gone to Tenebrae before I came to Harvard three years ago. It is a somber service held during the week before Easter—three hours of melancholy psalmody, chanted in a foreign tongue and, at the end when the final candle on the hearse is extinguished, enveloped in complete darkness. Reverent and sublime, indeed, but a dirge first and foremost—a lament for the present day of woe and a longing for a better time since passed.

The reverent formalities of this ancient rite no doubt seem strange to the Harvard of today. But its plaintive sentiment echoes with only too much resonance in the heart of the conservative on campus. How beautiful is this house of learning—the idyllic ivied quads, the scholarly seriousness, the august history of a three-century-old institution. But it has since been despoiled. Traditions usurped, curricula disemboweled, and the noble goal of all intellectual endeavors—the pursuit of truth—unceremoniously renounced. The Ark has been carried away and reposed in Babylon.

“Truth is an aspiration, not a possession,” I heard our president pronounce on a damp and dreary October afternoon last year. My stomach turned. Before my eyes was grand old Harvard on parade, splendidly arrayed in academic robes and bonnets, in all of its pomp and pageantry, installing its new president according to the customary prescription. Yet with a few derisive words about Harvard’s Puritan heritage from Drew Gilpin Faust and her counterpart at the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann ’71, that visible visible continuity—between the Harvard of the present and the past—was sundered.

At Harvard, the conservative reflex has been to lament the despoiled temple—praise the University’s illustrious history while bewailing the perceived decline. To be a conservative means to conserve, of course, but to conserve what? This implies not only that something is worth conserving, something precious, but also something under attack, something to be defended. What at Harvard should a conservative conserve? What is a Harvard conservative?


I arrived at Harvard as a partisan Republican thoroughly engaged with current affairs and optimistic about my party’s fortunes after the triumph of 2004. Naturally I sought empathetic fellow travelers—a refuge from the reflexive Harvard liberalism in which I had already become well versed—in the Harvard Republican Club. The HRC abounded with intelligent and interesting people, with firm convictions and no small sum of courage to take a stance clearly unpopular with most of their peers. I often would flock, with compatriots from the HRC, to the Institute of Politics: to hear speeches by presidents, diplomats, and other luminaries, attend seminars on the inner-workings of policy-making and government bureaucracy, and represent what was on campus the often-marginalized alternative position on issues of the day.

I quickly discovered, though, that I had no mind, or patience, for the rigor of campaigns or the complex intricacies of policy. I not only was often bored to tears—barricaded within the IOP Forum as yet another Kennedy School student posed a jargon-laden question—but I felt distinctly out of place. Certainly, college students have little to contribute to—and even less to gain from—discussions about the particulars of government and policy.

From the very beginning of our country’s history, Harvard has graduated presidents and elder statesmen and, to many of my classmates, this tradition would seem to bode well for political prospects in their own future. Aspiring congressmen and bureaucrats do well to capitalize on Harvard’s abundant political resources—everything from IOP study groups on bipartisanship, diplomacy, and winning elections, to the ample opportunity for grass-roots activism with the HRC and the College Democrats.

“I am without illusions,” Don Fabrizio, the stoic hero in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, explained as he rejected an offer to become a Senator. “What would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for wanting to guide others?” But even more self-deception is required to suppose that political leadership can be learned in a Kennedy School classroom or on the campaign trail. Worldly experience, good judgment, refined prudence, and strong character—these can only be earned over the course of many years and confirmed by many trials and challenges.

Young people, furthermore, have little experience in practical matters and the business of life, and, generally speaking, an underdeveloped prudence—essential prerequisites for responsible and effective participation in public affairs. They supplement these deficiencies with abundant idealism, energy, and hope. With fewer years in the world, they are attached less to its charms and its pleasures, which they threaten to erode and erase in their earnest for change.

I found an organization more to my temperament at The Salient—the conservative opinion journal on campus—and, to some extent, at The Crimson. Both publications, unlike the more typical outlets for political activity on campus, valued ideas over activism—in a less flattering light, all talk and no action. And talk that, unlike the wonkish IOP policy debates, is unencumbered by concern for the banalities of political reality. But even in the realm of ideas, as opposed to that of pre-professional political training, conservative common sense is rare to find.

The dominant ideology among Harvard students—despite the University’s reputation as the Kremlin on the Charles—is a type of libertarianism. Few any longer lodge complaints about capitalism or free markets on principle, although, with once-plentiful jobs on Wall Street now evaporating, that could yet change. Yet nearly all on campus—including the typical liberal Democrat and the self-described Republican—remain thoroughly suspicious of authority and resent any limitation or constraint upon their behavior, rights, or freedom to do as they like.

While many putative conservatives, nursed on the sole principle of animosity toward self-aggrandizing government, can find common cause with this libertarian ésprit, genuinely reasonable people cannot. College students are still adolescents, and if we are no longer minors by law, we lack much experience and therefore have much to learn. But from whom are we to learn if we accept nothing on authority, and recognize no standards except those that we have, as individuals, arbitrarily chosen to accept?


Traditionally, the University has fulfilled a very conservative role: safeguarding and expanding upon the wisdom of the past, and transmitting it to rising generations. But the pedagogues at Harvard, with few exceptions, are loath to admit that they know better than students about what they ought to learn. Students have abundant choice—as far as Harvard indicates, studying the Classics or biochemistry has the same intrinsic worth as studying women, gender, and sexuality.

The faculty indeed has abdicated any responsibility for the content of its charges’ education, a decision confirmed by the amorphous new requirements for General Education and the mealy-mouthed rationale behind them. And while Harvard, at least publicly, professes agnosticism with respect to the value of constituent academic disciplines, it has completely abjured any interest in the moral education of its pupils.

If Harvard prides itself, as most of its students believe, on producing leaders destined to influence the course of future events, one would suppose it interested in the character and moral fiber of its graduates. But Harvard, in its infinite open-mindedness, cannot define such qualities without prejudice to some alternate point of view. And thus the only virtues affirmed unequivocally by the ascendant university culture are an unquestioning tolerance, on the one hand, for all beliefs, cultures, and “lifestyles,” and, on the other hand, a strict adherence to political correctness.

Yet even if these imperatives are only the minimum moral threshold required to sustain as multicultural and heterogeneous a body as the Harvard community, they still in themselves imply a value judgment. The motivating principle is “Do no harm”—but harm only narrowly understood as not giving offense. Such an ethic may discourage ignoble behavior, but it gives no spur or admonishment to right action—no conception of the good, the great, and the noble toward which we ought to aspire.

True, our University dilates long and often on the need for “social justice.” But this is the language of the bureaucrat—it presents a problem to be solved by the government agency, community organizer, or other channel of rationalized, collective action. In short, it offers no incitement for individually good, decent, and true action. To them, morality is a question of institutional organization, and not of high-mindedness and magnanimity.


Besides, in principle, attending to the mind and soul of its students, the University is also the “alma mater”—the nourishing mother. She presides over the four years of our growth into intellectual maturity and our preparation for independent adulthood, but more than that, over the final, sweet moments of carefree adolescence, insulated from the hard realities and tribulations of life into which we will soon be plunged.

“The languor of Youth, how unique and quintessential it is!” Charles Ryder lamented. “How quickly, how irrecoverably, lost!...but languor—the relaxation of yet unwearied sinews, the mind sequestered and self-regarding, the sun standing still in the heavens and the earth throbbing to our own pulse—that belongs to Youth alone and dies with it.” Those languid undergraduate years will soon be gone, and when gone, will be irrecoverable—but the happy memories are the University’s to preserve and protect, and our contact with and affection for that institution in our later years serve as a window back to our bygone days.

To most progressives, the past is a dark thing. It is submerged in superstition and bigotry, not illuminated by the torch of progress, brighter now in our age than at any time in the past and certain to shine more brightly still in the future.

For conservatives, the connection with the past—and with our own past—is an important concern. Conservatives consider the past with reverence and affection. In our most thriving traditions, we recognize a guide and a standard, the result of accumulated experience and generational wisdom. One cannot love something that one does not know, and know well. Such knowledge comes only from familiarity, which cannot be compassed with a passing glance. It requires patience and ample time, and it breeds nostalgia—fond reflections and reminiscing on good times now gone.

Conservatism at Harvard is not a political agenda—it is not even necessarily a political philosophy or a set of general political beliefs. It is an outlook, an attitude, a presumption in favor of ancient ways and usages, an awe before the majesty of things that have stood the test of time and survived.


Institutions like the University serve an important function, not only for conservatives, who may be the only ones who recognize and appreciate it, but for everyone privileged enough to partake in them. The University is an intermediary between the past and the future: in passing on the wisdom of the ages and in nurturing properly the rising generations. But more importantly, the University is a rock within the coursing river of time. Our lives inexorably go on, and the current charms, pleasures, and blessings are lost even before we had proper time to appreciate them; we are constantly turning our glances backward, as our feet are obliged to march forward.

Even as our days go on, and our undergraduate years become separated by greater intervals of time, in the University—in which was spent our precious few days of comparative innocence and greatest vitality—we are reminded of the sweetness of youth, when the world seemed so much brighter and our burdens lighter. Even though we must leave the University, it always replenishes itself, and the rituals of youth are solemnized for others. But we are also comforted with those nostalgic remembrances, and with the assurance that as constant as change might be for our lives on the Earth, some things—man-made though they might be—never change much.

Harvard yet has changed much and changes often still now. According to some progressive creeds, the University is an agent of change, and ours seems to live up to that charge. This is a sad truth, and one that is not likely to be invalidated in the near future. But as long as Harvard remains recognizable to us, after we have long departed it, we shall find some fondness in visiting and remembering it. And, in Harvard’s constant agitation for change and “progress,” we are also fittingly reminded of the brevity of life—that even the solid University, whose foundations seemed implacable to time itself, is not assured to last forever. “The place was desolate and the work all brought to nothing. Quomodo sedet sola civitas—vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

The impulse of the conservative, or at least the conservative at Harvard, is to conserve the unconservable. At University, where our connection with the past is often so tangible—whether while languishing in Widener among the ideas of the generations or participating in the century-old tradition of House life—we can easily lose appreciation for how quickly time passes and how fleeting are most things in life. And it is the virtue of the conservative at Harvard to face nobly this sentence—the shortness of a life whose pleasures pass so quickly—while yet honoring the past, with all of its fond memories, that he is forced to leave behind.