Never a stranger to controversy, Harvard’s conservative publication, The Harvard Salient, has once again caused a minor furor on campus. A Mar. 13 feature by Patrick T. Brennan ’11 has many students up in arms about the author’s apparent insensitivity toward certain racial and cultural groups, and dismissal of the ethnic-studies program at Harvard. When evaluating the purpose of a liberal-arts education, we think that fields such as ethnic studies provide critical opportunities for students to expand their views on the world; as such, ethnic studies has every right to exist as part of the curriculum that Harvard students may elect to study.
Programs like ethnic studies are products of a progressive educational philosophy, which recognizes that, as our understanding of the world around us changes over time, so should the ways in which we define a good education.
Harvard is an old institution, and there is certainly value in maintaining tradition and carefully considering which fields are legitimately worthy of study. However, there is no reason to impose academic imperialism on subjects by evaluating certain “classic” fields of study as fundamentally more deserving of attention than others. Subjects like rhetoric, logic, and astronomy may have been the foundations of education in the classical world, but we are now two thousand years removed from the fall of Rome, and the academic occupations of modern scholars should necessarily be different from those of the ancients.
In addition to resisting academic chauvinism that dictates the worthiness of academic subjects, it is also necessary to restrain from politicizing academic subjects and dismissing them based on such unsubstantiated and reductive labels. It is factually incorrect and morally dangerous to arbitrarily assign a political tag to a field of study—something that is often done by those advocating for more of an emphasis on “classical” subjects. There is simply no connection between a “liberal” approach to education and “liberal” national politics. Recognizing the contributions and historical significance of multiple cultures and civilizations is a matter of intellectual open-mindedness, not a left-wing conspiracy to diminish the importance of the white Anglo-Saxons. Boxing certain fields into politically liberal and politically conservative categories (e.g. ethnic studies versus classics) is tremendously detrimental to the ideal goal of having both intellectual and political diversity in all academic areas.
What students learn in college does not suddenly cease to be important upon graduation. Those who question the necessity of a field like ethnic studies need only look at the rapid pace of economic globalization and the constant movement of groups of people within the U.S. and around the world to see that the study of ethnicity, as well as interracial and intercultural interaction, is more pertinent than ever.
Moreover, the use of interdisciplinary approaches is one of the greatest driving forces of academia and of innovation in the world at large, and colleges should make an effort to prepare students appropriately. Fields like ethnic studies or women, gender, and sexuality are worthwhile academic pursuits because they train students to utilize a wide range of methods when engaging in intellectual inquiry. Even relatively “traditional” methods-based disciplines are not as pure and unified as they are frequently made out to be. Within a department like history, scholars can approach the past with an eye toward intellectual developments, cultural and social change, or economic and financial trends. Some of the criticism relating to the malleable nature of subjects like ethnic studies versus those like history is therefore unwarranted and inaccurate.
The establishment of ethnic studies as a secondary field introduces a new way of thinking. It serves as a counterweight to the kind of academic chauvinism that puts forth the risky proposition that some degrees are more important than others. An avid student of the Eurocentric, so-called classical model of Western education would be wildly ill-equipped to understand the broad, socio-cultural forces that shape current events in the national and international spheres. Purposely ignoring the experiences of non-Western peoples would be like looking at the world with one eye closed—with a massive blind spot and no depth perception at all.
In general, expanding the curriculum in response to student demand is a positive thing. Some of the more recent concentration fields, such as neurobiology and human evolutionary biology, were reactions to calls for new ways to organize the study of biological sciences. Similarly, the ethnic studies secondary field program likely resulted at least in part from the advocacy of students who contended that it would fill a gap in the current academic program at Harvard. These changes and additions represent admirable efforts to make academic study more comprehensive and reflective of student interest.
One of the stated goals of the ethnic studies secondary field at Harvard is to “focus on the broad canvas of the human experience.” Surely, there cannot be a more appropriate statement of what it truly means to pursue a liberal-arts education.
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