All these accomplished alumni, spread across history and the island of Manhattan, would seem to endow present-day Harvard students with a legacy to be cherished. They don’t. Despite their diverse accomplishments, our graduates are marred by what they’ve tended to have in common: their complexion. White and male, they’re an embarrassment to us all.
We’ve waged a long crusade against this humiliating history. We’ve recognized and funded a handful of student groups for every conceivable minority, visible or otherwise. We’ve commissioned portraits of non-white faculty and administrators, prominent or not. And we’ve seized on every incidence of political incorrectness—in newspaper columns, hiring decisions, and picnics on the Quad—to launch sputtering offensives against the injustice, intolerance, and inhumanity that plague our campus.
None of this has been enough. The only way to renounce our shameful heritage once and for all is to destroy the scourge that tethers us to our lily white past. If we are to fully taste the rainbow of our future, we have no choice but to annihilate the Harvard man.
He is everywhere. On stage at Commencement, he proudly displays his school colors among his grey-haired reunion classmates. At fancy dinner parties, he holds the door for those behind him and adeptly navigates a formidable forest of salad forks.
The Harvard man is guided by a parochial set of “values,” “ethics,” and “manners,” which he inanely believes ought to apply to everyone, regardless of background. At Harvard, he was indoctrinated into believing himself a member of some contrived “community of learned men,” and that his education was intended to give him something more than a lucrative career. He claims that there is more to living in a civil society than being an unfettered individual and so is an anachronism, the sworn enemy of the formless, unstructured diversity that we must venerate.
Harvard’s discriminatory history is hardly happenstance. For most of the last century, our undergraduate curriculum has encouraged such uniformity more or less explicitly. Since any coherent program of undergraduate education entails choosing a particular set of values, skills, and understandings that college graduates ought to share, it will necessarily exclude any student who, due to race, sexual orientation, or personal taste, disagrees with that mission. It’s this exclusivity that has torn at the cloth of our community, giving the Harvard man enough wiggle room to propagate his hateful, antique notions of “responsibility” and “citizenship.”
Things really started going downhill in 1945, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences published “General Education in a Free Society,” known as the “Redbook” because of its colour. Let’s call it the “Whitebook,” because of its content.
General Education, the Whitebook argued, was, “that part of a student’s whole education which looks first of all to his life as a responsible human being and citizen.” The new curriculum that the Whitebook proposed would have required courses with names like “Great Texts in Literature” and “Western Thought and Institutions.”
That many—if not most—of the works that would be studied by Harvard’s white, male students under the new curriculum were written by white, male, dead people didn’t seem to bother the white, male, nearly-dead Faculty members who authored the Whitebook. They were too intent on the racist, sexist goal of educating civic-minded gentlemen to care.
In 1979, General Education became the Core Curriculum. The Faculty seemed to have at last woken up to the fact that one cannot both respect diversity and maintain consistency in undergraduate education. Thank goodness, then, that the Core was little more than an almost-coherent statement of what Harvard’s almost-diverse student body of 1979 ought to learn.
When the Faculty changed the Core’s name back to General Education last spring, it literally wrote “flexibility” and “diversity” into the programme from its inception. We shouldn’t fret that Harvard hasn’t totally dismissed the concept of an undergraduate curriculum; General Education has been gutted so profoundly of coherence and meaning that no two Harvard students need ever have anything in common ever again—ego, ambition, and Facebook notwithstanding.
So long as we cling to any particular notion of what “learned men” ought to know or how they ought to act, we exclude the diversity of undergraduates who beg to differ. Striving to breed an army of investment bankers unencumbered by a clear set of values and a basic understanding of the society in which they live is, after all, much more politically correct. With the passage of our new undergraduate curriculum, the Faculty have finally woken up to what any good relativist could have told you decades ago: Harvard’s curriculum is finally as much of an incoherent, poorly composed morass as its student body.
But though our campus’ WASP-ish scourge is down, it’s certainly not out. It’s our responsibility to ensure that those of our classmates who still actually believe that being educated means reading Shakespeare see the error of their ways. Those who argue that studying Western Civilization is somehow more valuable than taking Literature and Arts C-42, “Constructing the Samurai” need our help.
The Harvard man’s sluggish pulse still echoes through the corridors of our campus. With our blissfully scatterbrained new curriculum in hand, the time is ripe to stop his heart beating once and for all.
Adam Goldenberg ’08 is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.