Harvard’s Government School Orientation Will Now Have A “Check Your Privilege” Session

Last week, the dean of Harvard University’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government agreed to include “power and privilege training” for every new student at orientation.

As NYmag.com notes, activists like Reetu Mody, a first-year grad student at the Kennedy School, found themselves disturbed by how often their opinions, especially those suggesting a racial bias, were dismissed in class discussions. The Kennedy School is known for grooming future world leaders, but apparently it doesn’t offer a very wide range of viewpoints in the classroom. In response, concerned students created a Tumblr called HKS Speak Out, a website that allows students to anonymously share their frustration with the limited sense of diversity on campus. In an open letteron the blog published on April 29th, students asked for “a mandatory power and privilege training that examines components of race, gender, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ability, religion, international status, and power differentials for every incoming HKS student starting August 2014,” among other requests.

Mody told NYMag.com that she believes a major reason for people’s aversion to “privilege checking” is the belief that the whole concept is designed to guilt-trip. This is a misconception, one that may be cleared up if more institutions were to talk about the issue. She also understands why privileged young people may not like hearing about inequality. “If what you’ve been told all your life is you’re really talented and you deserve what you have, it’s going to be really hard to find out Maybe I don’t deserve it, and all these other people equally deserve it but never even had a shot. Schools are not giving students a space to manage that loss of identity,” she explained.

But students obviously  have much to gain from listening to and learning from each other. According to a Kennedy School student on the Tumblr,

“Sometimes I feel that whole topics would be glossed over or completely misunderstood if I weren’t there to share my poor minority perspective. … I remember sitting in class first semester and thinking, ‘No wonder the policies in America are so ass backwards! Harvard policy makers have no idea what they’re talking about, no accurate historical knowledge, no personal context, and no humility or courage to simply admit they don’t know and ask someone who does.’”

Could recognizing one’s privilege become part of the curriculum at every university? Mody sure hopes so, and sees education on the subject as a potential tool for future leaders. HKS Speak Out would also like Harvard faculty to be trained, which I imagine would have a greater lasting impact on the school.

The internet’s adoration for haphazardly tossing around the words “check your privilege!” haved muddied an already-complicated concept, and I do think it needs to be treaded delicately in order to be taught in a way that benefits the campus rather than creates even more of a divide. There’s a lot more to a person than their privilege — whether they’re in a position of power or a more marginalized position — and it can be dangerous to classify a person without putting serious consideration into what kind of message that sends. That said, it’s satisfying to hear that a school known for regularly churning out rich, white politicians of mediocre ability (read: privileged dudes) is attempting to instill a more just, thoughtful and accountable perspective into the minds of our future presidents and senators.

[An Open Letter To The Harvard Kennedy School via HKS Speak Out]