Goelet Professor of French History Patrice L. Higonnet '58 raised eyebrows last week in the first lecture of History 10b--the second half of a full-year European history survey course--by discussing issues of gender and sexuality and showing explicit slides of genitalia.
But besides surprising students, the prominent professor's approach to history raises some important questions about scholarship and pedagogical method.
Higonnet argues that he has two interconnected goals: to provide students with a mastery of historical fact and detail while acknowledging the "postmodernist sensibility" in history.
In an interview this week with The Crimson, the professor said he is concerned by sharply falling enrollments in the history department. And he said he fears that history as a discipline is moving away from being at or near center stage in the academy.
But, according to Higonnet, the problem is bigger than that. "Somehow the sensibility of modern life presents problems for historians," he said.
Higonnet's concerns are valid ones, and the way he addresses those concerns deserves to be praised. Higonnet has expressed his awareness of the trade-off between tradition and innovation. He apparently understands the risks involved in his approach.
"In this course, my students will find out about the events of 1789 and 1832," Higonnet said. "At the same time, the course tries to do more. Postmodern approaches, multiculturalism and cultural history are ways of informing our historical understanding."
We hope that all professors at Harvard make similar efforts at balanced scholarship when designing and teaching their courses.
We commend Higonnet for the creativity and innovation he demonstrates in teaching History 10b. We also praise him for recognizing that all aspects of cultural history--including those often neglected in the past--are just as important to understanding history as dates and places.