Awaiting the Social Studies Celebration: With Anticipation or Apprehension?

When the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Harvard’s Social Studies program, in which I majored, was announced, I immediately made plans to attend. While the term “social studies” in Ontario, and likely many other places, refers to part of the elementary school curriculum, at Harvard it is something special. Social studies is an interdisciplinary Social Sciences major, grounded in the study of the greats of modern social theory. In my day it was limited enrolment and, for students interested in social science, the it major.

The Social Studies celebration has now become the controversy du jour because a recent blog post by Martin Peretz, the long-time director of the program, has caught the attention of those who feel it is islamophobic. They are demanding that Harvard withdraw the honor it is about to bestow on him – the establishment of a student scholarship fund in his name. The controversy has gone beyond the US; for instance, one of Peretz’s critics is Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan.

I was looking forward to the event – a mixture of intelligent dialogue and meeting old and new friends – with great anticipation. I now wonder whether the agenda will be hijacked by the Martin Peretz affair, to the extent that attendees will have to pass through a gauntlet of placard-carrying protesters and, inside the room, it monopolizes the discussion.

But does Peretz deserve to be honored by Harvard?. Some honors are given for a specific achievement or achievements in a specific area, for example Nobel prizes, and other honors are given to the whole person for achievements of a lifetime (at least to that point), for example the Order of Canada. For the former, everything other than the specific achievement or achievements is generally assumed irrelevant. But can everything else really be considered irrelevant to the prize? Would a Nobel committee give its prize to a brilliant scientist who has made a discovery of the utmost scientific significance and practical importance, but who has recently been convicted of vehicular homicide?

Universities honor people by giving them honorary degrees or attaching their names to buildings, programs, or scholarships. They are often not explicit, even in their own thinking, about whether the rationale for the honor is a specific achievement or the qualities of the whole person. Even for honors for specific achievements, this can become problematic if the honoree has been deeply engaged in a controversial issue as a partisan – here I like the French term parti pris – on one side. And this appears to be the essence of the issue regarding Martin Peretz. The honor is for the significant role he played in managing the Social Studies program for a long time and in a challenging era. The following analogy comes to mind. The late Edward Said was a controversial advocate of the Palestinian position and critic of Israel. He was also an accomplished literary scholar. While I didn’t support his views on the Middle East, I would support any one of the 20 universities that gave him honorary degrees, assuming it was for his literary scholarship.

In the case of Martin Peretz, his detractors feel that his commentary about the Middle East is tantamount to hate speech about Muslims. In terms of the driving analogy, they would consider it the equivalent of vehicular homicide, so that these aspects of the whole person are so objectionable that he should not be honored for his contributions to the Social Studies program. My inclination – albeit without detailed study – is to say that Peretz’s commentary, while pointed and controversial, hasn’t crossed the line into hate speech.

Whatever else happens, I hope the Social Studies celebration remains a celebration, because the program is worth celebrating. More on that next week.

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