A modern-day Greek tragedy

January 5, 2024
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In classic works of literature or drama, tragedy tends to take one of three forms.

First, there are the tragedies that are self-inflicted—that grow out of central character’s inherent flaws, or what the ancient Greeks called hamartia. This term refers to an inherent defect or shortcoming in the character that ultimately leads to that character’s downfall. That flaw might be a weakness like jealousy, ambition or indecisiveness or a virtue taken to an extreme. Often, that flaw is hubris, the excessive pride or arrogance that leads the character to overstep boundaries, defy moral codes or disregard warnings, setting the stage for tragedy.

Second are the tragedies that result from external forces or circumstances beyond a person’s control. Sometimes these forces are supernatural or cosmic; at other times they are products of an unfortunate course of events. In many tragedies, the characters are at the mercy of fate. Their destinies are predetermined and their attempts to escape fate only bring them closer to it.

When classic mythology, drama and philosophy refer to human beings as the playthings of the gods, the phrase reminds us of the limits of human agency—that we, as human beings, have only limited control over their own destiny or lives. Instead, their fates are determined by the gods’ whims or by supernatural forces or fortuna—that is, fortune and chance. The phrase implies that the gods are capricious, whimsical or cruel in their actions, using humans for their own entertainment or purposes without regard for human suffering or desires.

The phrase also relates to the trials and tribulations faced by humans as a result of divine intervention. This can be seen in various stories in which humans are subjected to tests, punishments or challenges imposed by the gods.

Philosophically, the notion of humans as playthings—as “flies to wanton boys”—can also be interpreted to reflect on the unpredictability and inexplicability of life events. It offers a way to acknowledge that many aspects of human experience are beyond individual control, subject to forces (be they fate, nature or societal structures) that can seem as arbitrary and powerful as the whims of mythological gods.

Then there is the most profound tragedy of all, which centers on individuals ensnared in conflicts larger than themselves, where contrasting moral and ethical frameworks are in stark opposition. This narrative structure is compelling because it encapsulates the complexity of the human condition, the struggle with moral ambiguity and the often tragic consequences of choices made under such duress. These conflicts are not just personal but are reflective of broader societal, cultural or existential tensions.

Characters in these latter tragedies are often caught between their personal moral convictions and the prevailing norms or rules of their society. This conflict can lead to a sense of isolation, internal turmoil and, ultimately, tragic choices. For instance, in Sophocles’s Antigone, the titular character’s moral duty to her brother conflicts with the edicts of the state, leading to her tragic demise.

These tragedies frequently explore situations where characters must navigate conflicting ethical values. Each choice presents its moral quandaries and the inability to reconcile these values often leads to a tragic outcome. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist’s impulse for revenge conflicts with his moral uncertainty about the dictates of justice.

In addition, many classic tragedies involve the tension between destiny (or fate) and free will. Characters struggle to assert their agency in a world where their fates seem predetermined, often by divine or supernatural forces. This struggle is central to tragedies like Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, where Oedipus cannot escape his prophesied fate despite his efforts.

Frequently, tragic figures must grapple with the collision of idealism and realism. In some instances, their adherence to certain ideals in a pragmatic world can lead to their downfall, a tension that can be seen in the character of Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, whose stoic and republican ideals are inadequate for the treacherous political realities of the Roman republic. In other cases, tragic characters are torn between their duties (to family, country or a cause) and their personal desires or emotions.

Through these moral conflicts, classic tragedies often critique cultural and societal structures. They reflect on the human repercussions of rigid societal norms, corrupt power structures or unyielding traditions.

The moral conflicts and ethical dilemmas that these tragedies portray are intrinsic to the human experience, transcending specific historical or cultural contexts. They derive their depth and enduring relevance because they compel audiences to reflect on the difficult choices that we face, the ethical complexities of life and the often-painful consequences of our actions in an imperfect world.

You might consider the events we have just witnessed as merely a matter of power and politics, in which wealthy donors, right-wing ideologues and an assortment of disgruntled academics, motivated by jealousy or bitterness, took down a campus president to advance their own ends. But I think that interpretation is incomplete.

What took place instead was, first of all, a painful personal tragedy. Just as Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne wasn’t brought down by freshman journalist Theo Baker Harvard’s president wasn’t ousted by billionaire William Ackman. Both were unseated by their own flaws and missteps and by various political machinations. Still, anyone with a scrap of empathy or compassion or decency must feel a deep sense of shame while watching the politics of personal destruction.

The word “schadenfreude”—the sense of pleasure, amusement and satisfaction we feel when observing another person’s misfortune—helps explain why many of us feel dirty in the wake of the president’s resignation. After all, those of us who aren’t in positions of power or prominence invariably take a bit of sadistic pleasure in seeing the eminent brought low.

Circumstances and bad luck, too, contributed to the demise of Claudine Gay’s presidency. Had she not testified before the House committee, it’s conceivable that none of this would have happened.

Yet something much larger was also going on. Harvard’s president was, in certain respects, the product, symbol and exponent of diversity, equity and inclusion, and we are now in the midst of a backlash against that framework.

Let’s not delude ourselves. Even though there were many bad-faith actors with self-serving motives in this sequence of events, the deeper tragedy grew out of a conflict of values and moral frameworks. It reflected a deep divide over the campus culture that has emerged at this nation’s wealthiest institutions.

Many individuals who support the intentions behind DEI initiatives—promoting fairness, combating discrimination and fostering inclusiveness—express concern over specific aspects that they consider problematic. They worry that an overemphasis on political correctness in attitudes and language has produced a culture of self-censorship among students and faculty and compromised academic freedom and campus free speech. They fear that the social justice movement has overemphasized identity politics, leading to divisiveness, focusing more on differences than commonalities and, at times, overlooking individual merit and diverse perspectives.

Then there are concerns that these ideologies have influenced and distorted curricular decisions, leading to a narrowing of academic perspectives and a focus on issues of power, inequality and social justice issues at the expense of broader educational goals.

A source of particular concern, in many critics’ eyes—and not just in the red states—is the growth of campus DEI bureaucracies and perceptions of administrative overreach. These detractors worry that the growth of this administrative layer has undercut a commitment to academic excellence, individual achievement and liberal values; promoted groupthink, where dissenting opinions are discouraged; and stifled critical thinking and robust intellectual debate. There is also concern that this initiative has trampled on faculty control over hiring and promotion; diverted resources from other initiatives; failed to genuinely foster inclusion and equal treatment for all, regardless of their background; and has, ironically, reinforced negative stereotypes and generalizations about various social and cultural groups.

We have just witnessed a train wreck that has left many of us feeling sordid, much as watching the devastation of Gaza makes anyone with an ounce of human compassion feel distraught. In its wake, the elite campuses need, at a minimum, to rededicate themselves to a liberal education and a civil campus environment. They also need to seize this opportunity to commit their campuses to advancing diversity in all forms, including intellectual diversity.

More than that, these campuses need to clearly demonstrate that merit, scholarly achievement and diversity are not in tension, but are fully compatible. They must articulate a university identity that goes beyond institutional wealth or admissions selectivity and voice an agenda and purpose that goes beyond the scripted.

Harvard (and MIT) received $800 million for selling edX. But those institutions have failed to articulate a meaningful strategy for using that money to fulfill edX’s original purpose: to provide a high-quality education for free. Shouldn’t Harvard do much more to open its resources to the world?

There’s a reason why MIT has escaped the firestorm that has engulfed Penn and Harvard. No one doubts MIT’s value or contributions to society. It’s clearly advancing the frontiers of science and technology and contributing to the nation’s defense. But can Harvard or Penn or Yale clearly state why their demise would be a loss to this country?

One path forward for the elite campuses that do not need to worry about graduation rates and finances is to recenter themselves and to declare, quite boldly, that their purpose is to produce global citizens who serve the world—and not just the worlds of consulting and finance. They need to reassert their role as protectors of the fragile research that defines our history and humanity. And they need to expect much more from all community members—to ensure that those fortunate enough to attend or teach at an elite university are respectful and are able to interact civilly in a world of discord.

These campuses are sending their graduates into an environment where true evil exists and where the planet is in jeopardy, and those graduates have an obligation to acquire the skills and knowledge that will allow them to make a positive difference.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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