Anti-racist ideology rules Harvard's library
Libraries represent the heart of an academic institution and reflect its values.
The magnificent Widener Library at Harvard is one of the world's greatest. It is the flagship library of the Harvard Library system of more than 20 million physical books and digital items, named for Harry Elkins Widener (Harvard Class of 1907), who went down with the Titanic in 1912. Harry was part of a privileged generation that, despite all its faults, died believing in ideals that are detested by the left today, including chivalry, as encapsulated by the phrase "Women and children first..."
Image: Wikipedia, public domain.
Ornate marble columns border the special room dedicated to his memory, which contains Harry's personal library of rare books, as well as a Gutenberg Bible, which, by any standard, is the foundation stone of Western civilization. One can only peer into this room; its volumes do not circulate.
Image: Wikipedia, public domain.
In glaring contrast, just yards from the Harry Elkins Widener room, is another room with a sign that reads, "Welcome to the heart of Harvard Library: Centering marginalized voices," or, as I call it, "The Woke Room." The sign continues: "This space is a portal to a selection of our collections focused on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Antiracism values and scholarship." Welcome to the new sanctum sanctorum (secular "holy of holies") of antiracist ideology at Harvard.
If the first room reflects philanthropy, with a focus on the great books of Western civilization, this one proclaims socialism, woke propaganda. and radical chic. By Harvard's own admission, this is now the "heart" of the university library system and its core value of building "an exemplary antiracist research library."
But what does building "an exemplary antiracist research library" really mean?
It's a catch-all phrase built on a negative construct that can be stretched to mean almost anything. Its key characteristic is devotion to "the cause." That devotion provides a sense of ideological commitment but never ultimate fulfillment. It also generates competition, as in "I'm more antiracist than you are; therefore, I'm more dedicated, which really makes me a better person."
Surveying The Woke Room, as I did recently, reminded me very much of past Marxist-Leninist bookstores. I have visited many of those in my lifetime — little radical bookshops scattered in various urban enclaves around the world. As a former Pentagon Soviet affairs analyst who has studied "the other side" extensively, I know them well. And while it's true that The Woke Room does not proclaim Marxism-Leninism directly, its worldview is largely derived from the same sources, only placed in new wineskins under new names. Conservative radio commentator Mark Levin covers this phenomenon quite extensively in his bestselling book American Marxism (2021).
I wrote about Harvard previously in "Harvard on the Way Down."
Here are a few examples. In one part of The Woke Room, labeled "Antiracism and Human Rights," one finds several books about the Black Panthers, but certainly not David Horowitz's 2019 book Dark Agenda: The War to Destroy Christian America, where David tells how he recruited a friend, Betty Van Patter, then a mother of three, to be the Black Panthers' bookkeeper. Betty later discovered some serious financial discrepancies in the Black Panthers' books, but when she sought to have those corrected, she was murdered. David was later shattered to learn that the "people who had murdered Betty ... were my progressive comrades." The whole experience transformed him from being a hardcore Marxist into a strong conservative. However, students who do not know where to look will never hear this story.
Another example is Nikole Hannah-Jones's deeply flawed book The 1619 Project, sponsored by the New York Times, which has characterized American history as a "slaveocracy." It is prominently displayed in The Woke Room. But a reader will not find Mary Grabar's well documented critique of Hannah-Jones, Debunking The 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America (Regnery History, 2021) nearby — the latter is available to students online, but one would not even know that this book exists unless one knows where to look.
In another section of The Woke Room we find the late leftist activist Howard Zinn's tome, A People's History of the United States. Zinn has been credited with initially leading the effort to replace Columbus Day with "Indigenous People's Day." Grabar has subtitled a critique of Zinn's book as "Exposing the Fake History That Turned a Generation against America." Like most revolutionary movements, historical truth and accuracy are not as important as "moving the needle" in a certain direction. Other sample books in The Woke Room collection include titles such as Breaking White Supremacy and Whiteness in Plain View. One section of the room is dedicated to books on the so-called "Prison-Industrial Complex," and so on.
There was one book in The Woke Room that I personally found of great interest. It is titled Plymouth Colony (The Library of America, 2022). It is a new, important compilation of early American historical documents. But why was it here? Well, the subtitle makes that clear: "Narratives of English Settlement and Native Resistance from the Mayflower to King Philip's War." Enough said.
The overall Harvard Library System is the largest academic library in the world. Its stated purpose is to "champion curiosity for the betterment of the world," while its mission statement reads, "Our mission is to advance the learning, research, and pursuit of truth that are at the heart of Harvard." Nice-sounding words, but they fall far flat. One can't have a real pursuit of truth when the sources that critique or contradict the ruling ideology of an institution are buried. Such an approach also directly contradicts the grand purpose expressed by Harvard's official motto, Veritas — Latin for "The Truth," or the search for the truth.
This is the poisonous stew that future elites are now consuming. It is one thing for student groups to explore radical ideas and to protest what they see as society's ills. For many, this used to be part of the process of growing up. It is quite another, however, for a university itself to do so through its library system without proper critique or balance, thereby giving its stamp of approval to ideological indoctrination instead of civilized debate in a free society.
A.J. Melnick is a 1977 graduate of Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and is a former Pentagon analyst.