The essential elements of gift-giving—sacrifice, reciprocity, ritual, and public visibility—are absent in the forgiveness of student loans.
Word arrived last week over Twitter that Harvey Mansfield had delivered what is expected to be his last classroom lecture at Harvard, where he has taught for sixty years. Back in the day, this might have been a big occasion, with department colleagues in attendance and applause at the conclusion, but such traditions have apparently fallen by the wayside, and no doubt my soft-spoken mentor kept his plans mostly to himself. Besides, he is teaching a seminar in the spring, so Harvard isn’t done with him yet.
What a magnificent lecturer he is! When I attended his undergraduate lectures as a graduate student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, either as an auditor or teaching assistant (we never missed the chance), the enrollment was large (probably eighty to one hundred) and the room was abuzz with excitement. He lectured boldly, brilliantly, and provocatively, teasing the Harvard undergraduates about their pretensions as only a fellow Harvard man could, spoofing a famous colleague now and again, joking with the graduate students (or even over our big heads), saying things no one else could get away with—always with a proverbial twinkle in his eye. His classes were high-spirited occasions, but never loud; in fact, he would retreat to a whisper to get our attention, sometimes for a joke, sometimes to tell a sober truth. In a tribute last summer at the American Enterprise Institute, Yuval Levin put his finger on one secret of his pedagogy: You always sensed that he told you a little less than he knew, and thus set you thinking for yourself. Years later, I still feel the same excitement when I hear him speak before a crowd.
Of course it was not only his style but the substance of what he had to say that drew us to him. He made the books of political philosophy sparkle with life, whether Machiavelli or Tocqueville or even dry old Aristotle, showing us nuances we had overlooked but teaching us, too, how to identify the crux of an argument. He was and is conservative, openly so, but never sounded like a member of the conservative movement—the day after Reagan’s election, he came to campus wearing a cowboy hat, but he had said nothing political beforehand and little after—and he always called himself a friend of liberalism, though not a liberal. He is a keen analyst of partisanship in political life, as parties are understood in the great books—the democrats and oligarchs of Aristotle’s Politics, or the princes and peoples of Machiavelli’s Discourses— or as they are analyzed in contemporary political science (see his winter 2020 essay “Our Polarized Parties Dimly Seen” in National Affairs), or simply Democrats and Republicans in modern America. Indeed, his first book, Statesmanship and Party Government, is a study of how party competition came to be seen as legitimate in, not destructive of, free government, how a healthy politics demands that we both choose a side and respect the other. That partisanship is endemic is not, for him, a counsel of despair but a lesson in moderation. He consistently praises constitutionalism and says it summons virtue, the only higher political good.
Mansfield was notorious at Harvard as a difficult grader; already before my time the undergraduates had dubbed him “Harvey C- Mansfield” and apparently the band at a Harvard football game once spelled out “C-” in his honor. We teaching assistants were expected to hand over to him any “A” exams in our sections and sometimes even “B minuses,” to be sure we were not inflating marks. Around the year 2000, he was persuaded that his severity was hampering his students in the meritocracy, so he began the practice of assigning an “ironic grade” for the registrar in line with common standards and then a true grade to students who asked. He was sparing with praise, but as a consequence you never doubted that what praise he gave was earned.
His seminars were as different from his lectures as night from day. If the lectures were bold and high-spirited, the seminars were serene and reflective, teasing out details of the texts under study—often just a single work—trying out interpretations, some quite original. Not that his usual humor was lacking, only that it was often at our expense. One particularly garrulous graduate student, given to making long speeches that the professor would patiently indulge, once ended a tedious intervention with the observation that Montesquieu thought Cicero talked too much. “Go on,” said Mansfield, as we suppressed our guffaws. He ribbed us all, gently but deliberately, and those whose vanity couldn’t take it found a different advisor. One term he made a point of opening every class by chatting about current events. “Girls, you can now marry, for the prince is taken,” he began when Charles and Diana got engaged, though the class in those days was almost entirely male. The next week he announced his own daughter’s engagement—prompting the question from a student in another discipline, “Did she ask you or tell you?” “Told me,” he conceded, with a smile.
This was long before the book on Manliness or the seminars that preceded it, but we always looked to him, during the rise of feminism in the academy, for guidance on how to be, as he put it in describing his own graduate mentor, the formidable Samuel Beer, “as manly a man as a professor can be.” In the occasional social situation, he would carefully give us clues on points of manners that our fathers overlooked or, more likely, that we had ignored when they told us: “When being seated with a lady, allow her to choose the seat facing the room, so she can see the company while your eyes are directed at her.” He seemed to us the perfect gentleman in his comportment, and I have never known a woman who knows him who would not agree. That many of his students in recent years have been women is no surprise. (If you think this is all just gossip, read Manliness through to the end.)
Mansfield modestly enough identified as a Straussian—though in fact he encountered Leo Strauss only after earning his PhD—and I don’t believe there is a method or a doctrine that he means us to associate with his name. He taught through example as much as by precept, and the virtues he exemplifies are continuous with the constitutionalism he promotes. Already when I had the privilege of studying with him in the 1970s he had a shelf behind his desk with a couple dozen bound dissertations he had advised; by now there must be a hundred. Two Festschriften of essays by his students have appeared, and another is likely to come. But his greatest influence is unlikely to be through us, his graduate students, but through the generations of Harvard undergraduates who took his courses, eagerly or warily, even those who shied away from the challenge but knew it was there. It has been said of faculty that we can be divided into those who draw our prestige from the universities where we teach and those who contribute to those universities more than we draw. As impossible as it might seem that anyone could add more to the prestige of Harvard than he takes by association with its name, Harvey Mansfield has.