Park the cause in Harvard Yard
Students adore him, conservatives loathe him, and his guest speakers are always controversial.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.