At a time of great unease in the United States and injustice in the world, some of the country’s finest legal minds have been spending lots of time parsing Harvard Law School’s official seal.
The decorative shield dates back to 1936, and the main image on it — three generic-looking sheaves of wheat — was inspired by a bookplate used by the slave-owning family of a long-ago donor. After a committee of 12 faculty members and students concluded that the seal fails to “represent the values of the Law School,” dean Martha Minow recommended Friday that the Harvard Corporation retire the symbol.
No big deal; the seal just isn’t that important. Yet the underlying mindset — “when in doubt, throw it out” — is unsettling, especially for institutions built on the free exchange of ideas. In a tense climate on many campuses, it’s become far easier to deem an ambiguous symbol unacceptably offensive than to decide, after careful reflection, to leave it alone.
As the debate over the shield intensified at Harvard Law, critics likened it to the Confederate and Nazi flags. But as professor Annette Gordon-Reed pointed out in dissenting from the committee’s recommendation, lawyers are trained to make distinctions. “I should not have to belabor,” she wrote, “why an image of wheat, an image that has appeared on many shields and crests for centuries, and was even on America’s penny, cannot be equated with a flag that sent armies marching across Europe.”
The issue isn’t that, once adopted, school symbols should never be changed. Especially in the South, there are public schools named for generals who fought for slavery, and there are colleges where the football culture drips with Lost Cause nostalgia. High schools well north of the Mason-Dixon line have chosen “Rebels” as their mascots. In many cases, schools adopted Confederate symbols only in the 1960s, as a jeering response to African-Americans’ demands for equal rights. When today’s students take offense to this status quo, they have ample reason to do so.
Yet on campus after campus, well-intended efforts to make sure people of all backgrounds feel welcome end up fixating on the wrong things: Under pressure from student activists, Harvard recently stopped using the term “house master” for the faculty members who supervise undergraduate dorms, even though the term has nothing to do with slavery. Last fall at Yale, the associate master of a residence hall provoked a campuswide outcry with an email that seemed to downplay the horror of — gasp! — offensive Halloween costumes. At Bowdoin College, student government leaders who attended a party involving minature sombreros now face impeachment proceedings.
The irony is that, on many campuses, recent waves protest have brought up issues of far greater substance than shields and sombreros: cases of racial profiling by university police departments, the suspicion that minority students sense in their dealings with merchants and residents just off campus, de facto segregation at schools with strong fraternity and sorority systems. These are cultural problems that take years of grinding effort to address. They’re also an argument for brushing off minor symbolic matters in favor of issues that actually make a difference.