SALT LAKE CITY — Should minors be forgiven for their mistakes, even the most appalling ones? Or, should youthful indiscretions sink your chances of getting into an elite university, just like a bad grade or test score?
Those were a few of the questions debated this week in response to Kyle Kashuv, a survivor of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, tweeting that Harvard rescinded his admissions offer over racist messages the teen sent when he was 16.
Kashuv became famous after the fatal 2017 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17 students. Unlike many of his classmates who advocated for stricter gun laws, he defended the Second Amendment, according to the The New York Times. He lobbied for a bill intended to make schools safer and met President Donald Trump.
He was admitted to Harvard, but after two-year-old racist messages he made over a Google document, text message and Skype surfaced, the Ivy League university sent him a letter asking for an explanation and ultimately voted to rescind his offer.
The messages at issue came to light after one of Kashuv’s peers sent them to the Huffington Post in May.
No one is debating whether the comments were racist. Kashuv even referred to them as “abhorrent racial slurs” in a letter of apology to Harvard’s Office of Diversity Education and Support.
Kashuv explained that he was trying to say the “most shocking things for the sake of shock value” in an interview with Vox.
After Harvard denied Kashuv a meeting to explain his actions further, he took to Twitter and publicized their decision. He included photos of his correspondence with the school and concluded, “In the end, this isn’t about me, it’s about whether we live in a society in which forgiveness is possible or mistakes brand you as irredeemable, as Harvard has decided for me.”
The internet went wild as battle lines between liberals and conservative voices formed.
Conservatives focused on Kashuv’s proficiencies as a student: his astoundingly high GPA and SAT scores, 5.345 and 1,550, respectively. They also noted that the teenager was 16 years old when he wrote the comments and should be forgiven for transgressions made at that age.
David Brooks, a prominent conservative columnist, agreed with Kashuv’s analysis of the situation in a New York Times article. “These days many people seem to think that the way to prove virtue is by denouncing and shunning, not through mercy and rigorous forgiveness. Harvard could have but didn’t take the truth-and-reconciliation approach — confronting the outrage, but trying to use it to get to a deeper eventual embrace,” Brooks wrote.
Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator, tied Kashuv’s revoked admission to the greater perceived threat of free speech on campus, a flash point for the right, in the Daily Wire. “This move by Harvard is the worst move I’ve ever seen in academia — and it represents the establishment of a standard so insane that no one can possibly withstand it,” he wrote.
On the other side, commentators were not sympathetic to Kashuv. They saw teen’s remarks as a valid cause to rescind his admission. Students are judged based on their performance from the first day of high school, some contended. Harvard does not look kindly on one bad grade, the same should go for one bad action, according to the left.
“Of course, Harvard is not deciding that someone can’t grow; it’s stating that Mr. Kashuv needs to grow at some other place. In this case, that’s a prerogative that Harvard was right to exercise,” wrote Michael Nietzel, former president of Missouri State University, in Forbes.
Jill Filipovic argued inCNN that “Harvard isn’t racist reform school. It’s one of the most elite universities on the planet. Admission is a privilege, not a right.” She speculated that the only regret Kashuv had shown was for getting caught.
Many writers, including The Atlantic’s Ashley Fetters, noted that Harvard also rescinded admissions for students caught exchanging memes and messages that targeted minorities in a private Facebook chat.
However, their cases were not put up for public debate.
Like all incidents that serve as proxies for the so called “culture wars,” there is an abundance of questionable impact and meaning. “Harvard’s decision is also an endorsement of the position that people should be shamed and punished for their worst mistakes as kids,” wrote Robby Soave, in Reason, a libertarian publication that he edits. Soave said it marked a victory for the “online mobs of cancel culture.”
All the commentary ultimately converged on one question: Does forgiveness mean a lack of consequences? Most American children will never attend Harvard, let alone a top-tier college. Their choices are set in stone the day they enter high school, and any slip ups or lack of focus means they won’t get into an elite university, commentators wrote. Whether or not we want to have teeangers’ actions determine their future is a whole other question, but that is the system currently in place.
As D. Watkins, editor at large of Salon, wrote in his publication, “It’s not a tragedy to be denied a spot at Harvard, even after initial admission. He will continue to have other options. But I do hope other young people learn from his experience the next time they want to try to be as ‘extreme and shocking as possible,’ especially on the internet.”