adolescents, character, college admissions, colleges, Earl Warren, Florida, forgiveness, gun violence, Harvard University, higher education, Hugo Black, Im-Politic, Japanese internment, Ku Kux Klan, Kyle Kashuv, Parkland, racism, school shootings, Supreme Court, universities, World War II
The more I read and think about Harvard University’s decision to rescind admission to Kyle Kashuv because this survivor of the Parkland, Florida high school mass shooting last year made a variety of racist and other offensive and bigoted remarks in a digital document two years ago, when he was all of sixteen years old, the more outraged I get. And the more convinced I become that Harvard pounced upon an excuse to respond to pressure to punish Kashuv for refusal to jump aboard the gun control bandwagon.
Let’s get one aspect of this incident clear right away. Kashuv’s remarks were genuinely appalling. But for any fair-minded observer, the mitigating factors are overwhelming. He was in mid-adolescence – when even good kids often get tempted to do and say lots of stupid and even cruel things. His remarks were so loopy that they even included anti-semitic slurs – even though Kashuv is Jewish. They were made in private digital communications to a handful of apparently equally stupid friends and other schoolmates – i.e. no one has ever accused him of voicing such sentiments in public, an act that would create actual victims. He has admitted responsibility and apologized profusely. Further, nothing known about him so far – and clearly, folks have been looking, since he was outed by a fellow Marjory Stoneham Douglas student who apparently opposed his views on guns – indicates that these remarks ever reflected his actual views, much less do so now.
In fact, overall, Kashuv’s behavior has been far more honorable than Harvard’s handling of his character issues. To its credit, the university first responded to “media reports discussing offensive statements allegedly authored” by Kashuv by noting the morals clause that’s one of its admissions considerations and asking for “a full accounting” so that the matter could be “considered.” (The best source for these and the following Kashuv and Harvard statements is Kashuv’s Twitter feed: @KyleKashuv.
But Harvard’s professed open-mindedness was actually a sham, as is clear from its June 3 letter to Kishuv following his apology and explanation, and rejecting his appeal. The admissions dean William R. Fitzsimmons told Kashuv that he and his colleagues “appreciated [his] candor and…expressions of regret” and “discussed [them] at length.” And they bounced him anyway.
It’s disturbing enough that Harvard refused to accept a lengthy apology for a 16-year old’s misdeeds, an equally lengthy promise to learn and grow, and evidence of actually acting on this promise (in the form of reaching out to the university’s diversity office for guidance and counseling). At least as disturbing is seeing this inflexibility at an educational institution – which presumably is in the business of human improvement and focuses on teenagers, who surely represent many of the most improvable individuals on the planet.
As Kashuv himself has wisely noted, Harvard’s actions also raise broad moral questions about whether “we live in a society in which forgiveness is possible or mistake brand you as irredeemable.” I’d add that the odds of making offensive comments in particular have risen dramatically in recent years, since the amped up coarsening of culture and society is bound to trickle (and even flood) down to the young. Moreover, given how unpopular his guns views tend to be in the left-leaning political cultures on so many college campuses, and especially at so-called elite institutions like Harvard, the school’s treatment of Kashuv reeks of a politicized admissions process.
At the same time, the potential practical consequences of such gun jumping (no pun intended) should be sobering. I’m thinking in particular of Hugo Black. This mid-twentieth century Supreme Court Justice belonged to the Ku Kux Klan as a young adult. He was never especially apologetic, either. But on the High Court, he became one of its staunchest proponents of racial integration and a singular champion of free speech and other individual liberties – for Americans regardless of color.
And don’t forget Earl Warren, Chief Justice of the Court during much of Black’s tenure. As Attorney General and Governor of California during World War II, he was instrumental in carrying out the federal policy of indiscriminately throwing Japanese-Americans into internment camps solely because of their race or ethnicity. Not until his memoirs were published posthumously is there any public record of regret for these actions. Yet as Chief Justice, he became an even more powerful force than Black for racial justice and civil liberties.
The main – and screamingly obvious lessons – it seems to me are:
First, people can evolve even as adults, much less from their childhood and adolescent selves.
Second, the case for affording the benefit of the doubt, especially when the offender is young, and forgiveness is sought, is impressive.
And third, to understand these truths, you sure don’t need a Harvard education.