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Park the cause in Harvard Yard

Students adore him, conservatives loathe him, and his guest speakers are always controversial.

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"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."

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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."

Theories aside, this is serious

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."

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