Can the Core Avoid the Canon?
I was looking through a list of next year's Core Curriculum courses yesterday. I got depressed.
First of all, I've never heard of any of the Literature and Arts B offerings. And don't even get me started on the fact that there is only one Moral Reasoning course in the fall--and it's scheduled for 9 a.m. But in truth, neither of these things would have bothered me at all if it wasn't for the fact that I have to take Core courses. And thinking about the Core makes me depressed.
"It makes us depressed too," my friends said. "Wouldn't it be much better if they had a Western Civilization class and distribution requirements?"
I got even more depressed.
It is obvious that the Core needs reform. It doesn't work. With a very few notable exceptions, professors don't want to teach the classes, students don't want to take the classes. But I'd rather have six more Core requirements than one "Western Civ" class. I'd rather double my science requirements than be told I am about to read the "Great Books."
Unfortunately, although Harvard's Core doesn't announce that it is a tribute to Western civilization, you can slip through learning little else.
I don't really deny that some of the "Great Books"--indeed all of them--have great parts. Nor do I deny that these books are the foundations of the "Western civilization" which scholars have so long defined for us.
But I question the correctness of actively working to perpetuate a system which marginalizes such a significant portion of society.
In the past, it could be argued, ignorance led us astray. Having been trained to see women and minorities as subhuman, how could these great white males conceive of any contribution from other quarters?
But today we pretend we have broken through those racist, sexist viewpoints. There are amendments to the cherished Constitution--surely a contribution to Western civilization--which say that people shall not be discriminated against on the basis of race or sex.
And yet, by advocating a "Great Books" course, we are discriminating on exactly those bases.
Irrational, I am told. You can have another class for women and minorities. But you can't change the list of "Great Books." If you have to leave something out, it mustn't be one of the "founders" of Western thought and culture....
Haven't we recognized the flaws in Western thought and culture in the past 20 years? Since the Civil Rights and the Women's Liberation Movements of the 1960s and '70s, most Americans will admit to the biases that have infected our past perceptions.
If we recognize them now, how can we leave Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. DuBois, Virginia Woolf, Simone De Beauvoir or Zora Neale Hurston off of our lists of contributors to Western civilization?
Unless we would hold that the past decades have wrought no change in our society, then the traditional approach to the study of Western civilization is seriously flawed. By removing those thinkers from our characterization of Western civilization, we are defining ourselves as we were, not as we are, or as we should strive to be.
I do not in any way deny the validity of studying Aristotle, whose ideas most certainly shaped much of Western culture. Or Shakespeare or Milton or Dante, who wrote some of the most beautiful works in history.
But if you present students with a "Great Books" or "Western Civilization" class which omits modern work and the work of those who are not white or not male, you are hurting students in two ways:
On the one hand you are insulting their intelligence by pretending that these ideas have not been countered in a society where technology has radically changed the economy and led to increasingly stratified social systems.
On the other hand, you are leaving them with only old paths to choose by hiding from them the new thoughts which have been generated in this century.
"Isn't this a little irrelevant," you may ask, "given that Harvard doesn't have a 'Great Books' course?"
But among the many dangers of the Core curriculum--brain-numbing as it is in too many ways--is that it is in many ways a two-semester "Books" course. One half is "Great Books." The second half is "Other Books." Or "non-Great Books."
On the one hand we have Moral Reasoning. This year, for the first time in recent memory, a class will be offered on Confucian thought. Clearly, this is a step in the right direction, given that every other Moral Reasoning course is very white, overwhelmingly male and extremely dead.
And we have Historical Studies, Literature and Arts, Science and Social Analysis. It would be unfair to deny scholars of different cultures their credit for offering non-white, non-male course in these areas, but for the most part, "Western Civ" abounds.
And then there is Foreign Cultures. The second semester. The Other. Foreign. The few courses which are offered in this area each year are the Harvard students' only required exposure to difference.
Although as a general rule I am thoroughly annoyed by requirements, I believe that Harvard must find a way to expose students to more of what is different. Only in this way will students learn that the "Great Books" have modern counterparts and the great thinkers can be nearly eclipsed--certainly equaled--by some of the modern great actors.
Like Harvard's administration and Harvard's faculty, Harvard's requirements are overwhelmingly white and male. In an administration it is annoying. In a faculty it shows a stuffiness, perhaps even prejudice, and more than a hint of the old-boys' network.
But in course offerings it is nothing short of regressive. We might as well take E. D. Hirsch's advice to heart and become "culturally literate." Harvard is challenging us with very little more than that.