Full of Sound and Fury

Recent English Department innovations further eviscerate liberal education

Apparently, for the English Department—which recently shortened its official name from “English and American Literature and Language”—one innovation is not enough. The department is currently considering a plan to reduce its concentration requirements and eventually to eliminate its introductory literature surveys, English 10a and 10b, “Modern British Writers”—“the bane of many an aspiring Harvard litterateur,” as one Crimson news article helpfully explained.

“Choice” has indeed been a watchword in campus curricular conversations of late. While the recently-concluded curricular review dithered about outlining a vision for general education in the 21st century, most students’ complaints continued to center less on pedagogical philosophy than on the paucity of options for fulfilling Core requirements. Incoming students no longer have to choose—as we seniors, the last of an older generation, had to—their concentration in their freshman year, ostensibly to permit, through more freedom to sample various disciplines, thus a more meaningful choice of study. Departments did not delay to follow suit—the History Department, for example, made the previously required introductory survey optional three years ago.

But the English Department, that protectress of our literary heritage, seemed to stand steadfast in her resistance to the winds of change then sweeping through university education with all the destructive fickleness of an undergraduate. She demanded that her concentrators study Shakespeare for a semester—a requirement, relatively unique among elite colleges, that apparently will continue. Other mandates included a semester of American literature as well as two classes on literature before the 19th century. And the gate through which all had to pass was the year-long chronological introduction to English literature, 10a and 10b. In her wisdom, or at least in her inertia, the English Department refused to graduate concentrators who did not share a common familiarity with many of the language’s greatest works.

As with all things at Harvard, unfortunately, change was soon to come. English Professor Gordon Teskey described the plans under consideration as “a total transformation and reconceptualization of the concentration.” And indeed it is. Instead of a relatively restricted program of many common classes, English concentrators will be given greater latitude to self-fashion their own literary “journeys,” in the words of Shakespearian Stephen J. Greenblatt.

While these innovations may bode well for the undergrads interested in plumbing the depths of postcolonial narrative, they only further point to the ongoing crisis in liberal education. Students should be given more freedom—the standard arguments go—to study what they want to study, with better “advising,” of course. But seldom, if ever, is the question asked: for what purpose, for what end?

Already, even under the relatively narrow Core, Harvard graduates share little as far as common academic experiences or familiarity with the same body of knowledge and literature that once distinguished those with a university education. The Greek and Roman classics, and the modern canon of “great books” of literature and philosophy, once occupied much of the intellectual experiences of Harvard students—presumably because the study of such works imparted knowledge of the virtues, and made men’s minds “liberal” in the original sense, not slavish.

In recent years, Harvard graduates could at least have pointed to the more focused programs of their concentrations—with more specific requirements and a rigorous tutorial sequence that supposed to teach the fundamental skills and basic knowledge of the discipline. But as concentrations continue to scale back their programs in response to the later declaration deadline and departments continue to obliterate common requirements, any semblance of a coherent academic purpose has disappeared.

High school curricula—so forcefully imposed into conformity by the demands of college admissions offices—still claim to confer upon their pupils a basic body of knowledge and set of skills, those deemed most useful and conducive to success at university. But colleges—at least the elite “liberal arts” colleges like Harvard—recognize no such duty to ensure the content if not the quality of their programs. Employers value liberal-arts graduates, by and large, not for their knowledge but for their intellect—guaranteed by selective admissions criteria. And the allure of places like Harvard, to most aspiring high-schoolers, is not so much the quality of the education, but the social status its prestige grants and the economic opportunity its degrees ensure.

Unless Harvard is content to allow its liberal tradition to become either merely a ticket for some to wealth and fame, or a babysitter for the aimless academic and social pursuits of young adulthood, it must seriously reconsider its educational role.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.