THE DECISION by the Harvard History Department to introduce an optional course on Western Civilization may confirm to some the worst stereotypes of that department. Never known for its receptivity to the study of minorities, women or the cultures of developing nations, the department's introduction of a new course about the West may seem like an affirmation of an ethnocentric, white male dominated approach to history.
Announcement of the new course follows calls from conservative critics for a return to study of the basic texts of Western culture, which adds to the impression that the department once again is asserting disdain for all things non-traditional. After all, this is the department that has left vacant for years a chair in African history. But it would be wrong to fear that this decision is the first sign of a departmental capitulation to the Great Books philosophy of education.
The Great Books approach is predicated on the belief that "the sacred texts" should be read as classics qua classics, independent of time or place. As a history department offering, the new course will place the works of Nietzsche, Marx and Hegel in a historical context; they will not simply be revered.
THE LEADING critic of contemporary liberal education, Allan Bloom, has railed against such historicism. He decries the notion that man's being is essentially historical, and his work never transcendent. It will not please him that great books will be taught by the historians of Robinson Hall.
The decision to offer the course thus does not seem to be an ideological statement. It appears, instead, that the department looked at its curriculum and saw a gap which needed to be filled. In that sense, the new course may represent a newfound departmental concern for the education of its undergraduates.
If Robinson Hall is one of the more conservative history departments around, as critics contend, it also has been one of the most aloof. Popular junior professors repeatedly have been asked to take their talents elsewhere. More than 1000 students flocked last spring to Dunwalke Associate Professor of History Alan Brinkley's lectures on post-World War II politics. He was denied tenure. Roughly 100 attended this fall's post-Brinkley version of that class.
History concentrators have been made to feel that their concerns simply are not the concerns of the department. The paucity of course offerings in recent years led students to wear t-shirts which read: [History]. Furthermore, many of the senior professors in the department conform to the worst stereotypes of Harvard professors: plenty of time for research and graduate students, little interest in undergraduates.
But it seems that the History Department finally is treating these criticisms seriously and directing its attention towards the little guys. It has put tenure disputes aside and spent a good amount of time formulating what should be a course beneficial for undergraduates.
THE COURSE fills an important gap in the Department's offerings--particularly for concentrators. The peculiar policy of forbidding concentrators from studying both American and modern European history at the same time leaves a major portion of Western civilization a mystery to many concentrators. The introduction of a survey to Western Civilization provides a much-needed corrective.
The class even sounds interesting, introducing students to important European texts they otherwise may never read. Equally important, the class will require a good number of tenured historians to lecture undergraduates in a context which could prove stimulating to both.
Bloom makes the compelling point that the teaching of the classic texts holds a unique potential to bring students and professors closer. Classic works are the common intellectual property of all, teacher and student alike. Specialized academic study, in contrast, inevitably leaves students at an enormous and often stifling intellectual disadvantage to their professors. Anything which brings History department faculty closer to the student body is something to be welcomed.