Park the cause in Harvard Yard
Students adore him, conservatives loathe him, and his guest speakers are always controversial.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Standing before a formidable throng of antiwar protesters in Harvard Yard, Prof. Brian Palmer grabs a microphone, climbs onto a rickety wooden chair and looks up, his thin frame trembling slightly in the cold.
"I was asked to speak about war," Dr. Palmer says, forcing his soft voice into a vehement bellow to carry over the crowd of 1,200. "But is there a war to be found? Perhaps not in Iraq. As Mark Morford has observed, I quote: 'This is a Mack truck versus a Pinto. This is an F-16 versus a paper airplane, a Tomahawk missile versus a spit wad. There is no contest.' "
Palmer pauses to allow the thunderous applause to dissipate. As the professor of one of Harvard's most popular courses, "Globalization and Human Values: Envisioning World Community," Palmer is a celebrity of sorts across campus. His accessibility is almost unrivaled (his home number is at the bottom of every e-mail he sends to his 522 students), and his powerful lectures and selection of notable guest speakers always draw a crowd.
But the class has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, and not just because of Palmer's stance against war. His course, which hosts 20 guest speakers - including linguist Noam Chomsky, author Jamaica Kincaid, ethicist Peter Singer, and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch - has been lambasted for airing overwhelmingly liberal perspectives. Editorials in The National Review, a slam from Rush Limbaugh, and dozens of irate e-mails have forced Palmer, who received the Levenson Award for "best teaching by a junior faculty member" last year, to defend not only his course, but himself.
Palmer, described by one student as a "marketer for ethical questioning," says one goal of the course is to "be aware of the most urgent societal debates and to know how to participate in them. I hope it creates spaces of deliberation and, if it's not too grand a word, spaces of democracy," he says in his trademark whisper.
And yet critics accuse Palmer of being anything but democratic in his selection of guest speakers, and in his public proclamation of personal views outside of class, prompting deep questions about whether professors should promote diversity of thought in the classroom.
When The New York Times dubbed his course "Idealism 101," Palmer took it as a compliment. "The word 'idealism' has a mixed set of connotations," he says. "I see it as hopefulness that, through shared effort, we can create a more humane world."
But idealism doesn't negate skepticism, Palmer insists. The last thing he wants is for a speaker to go unquestioned. In fact, the course revolves around student questions, which are often confrontational.
No speaker, for instance, delivers prepared material. The lecture is more like an interview; students pose 10 preselected questions before the floor opens to anyone (with one exception: Palmer tries not to call on the same gender twice in a row).
Even in the presence of Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys - a childhood friend of Palmer's who founded the Tibetan Freedom Concerts in the early '90s - students sounded anything but star-struck as they drilled him on what he knows about Tibet.
One student questioned why he refuses to entertain the possibility that China has brought some welcome changes to Tibet. (After class, she introduced herself as a member of Harvard's Students for a Free Tibet, and thanked him for appearing.)
"Some students are quite advanced at the art of asking tough questions," Palmer says. And the student viewpoints, at least, cover the political spectrum.
"I took this course precisely because it is propaganda," says Laura Seaton, a senior from Kansas who describes herself as a moderate Republican. "I aim to remain informed of the best arguments of those with opposing views. However, I believe that any professor has the right to teach what he knows best. Other professors at Harvard on both sides of the aisle similarly promote their personal views."
Palmer says he welcomes conservative points of view and, while students like Ms. Seaton say there could be a more balanced repertoire of speakers, Palmer maintains that diversity exists and is encouraged.
"We still have far more diversity than a course with just one lecturer," Palmer counters. "Instead we have 20, plus me."
Palmer says he didn't set out to exclude anyone based on their politics. Among those who declined his invitation: Harvard President Larry Summers, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry.
Palmer, who regrets recently telling a Boston Phoenix reporter that, sooner or later, "the university will spit me out like a used piece of chewing gum," says he has "no reason to feel sorry for myself, given how well things have gone in recent years."
But he hopes to challenge students to think more critically about how they use the privileges bestowed upon them. "The idea that the course in some sense challenges the educational model at Harvard - that's true and important," he says.
"I hope it will help students think about to which purposes and organizations they lend their ability and, in some cases, their wealth. There are very few people who would say that what the world urgently needs at this moment is more investment bankers or more corporate lawyers."
Travis Kavulla, associate editor of The Harvard Salient, calls Palmer's course "the triumph of ideology over inquiry." In a recent article, he writes: "The poor overworked students feed [the speakers] questions related to their own pet left-of-center causes, and at the end of the day everyone goes home happy - with an inflated GPA and an undisturbed liberal world view."
Many of Palmer's students disagree that the class fails to disturb their views.
"This class has many viewpoints, something that most classes at Harvard do not," says Duncan French, a senior from Woodside, Calif., who will be commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Marine Corps.
"What makes this class unique is the content, rather than number, of different viewpoints. The speakers, regardless of the political affiliation, come from a range of categories. This broad range of backgrounds has allowed the students to hear from a large cross section of society."
Many students say that, if anything, the class discussions have been timely.
"The reading we do, the speakers we hear, the material we analyze now all have a blood-in-the-soil reality," says Nathalie Miller, a junior from Berkeley, Calif.
"When you look at the cover of the New York Times and see a newly orphaned Iraqi girl in the lap of a marine doctor, and when you see the blood on her sweater and the devastation in his face, the theoretical stuff we're discussing becomes very, very real. This class is about challenging yourself and figuring out where you stand on a lot of issues that have, as we see with the war in Iraq, serious consequences."
Palmer continues to get angry e-mails and letters, but he insists that the purpose of his course is about more than politics.
"The emphasis at Harvard is too often on how to climb one's way to the top," he says. "One thing that differs about this course is the sense of urgency guests and students bring to it. That suggests we may have to put aside personal ambitions and deal with matters that cannot wait."