Don’t Know Much About History

General Education’s neglect of the past bodes ill for liberal education

“Those who cannot remember the past,” warned one-time Harvard professor George Santayana, “are condemned to repeat it.”

Without regard for Santayana’s oft-quoted maxim, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) recently concluded that Harvard’s new General Education program will not require the study of history. The Faculty’s definitive exclusion of history should arrive as no small shock, given the values articulated in the preliminary report of the Task Force on General Education.

“Knowledge of the history of art and ideas,” claimed the report, “helps [students] see how their identities have been shaped.” Another vaunted cornerstone of liberal education, “ethical awareness,” demands exposure to “beliefs and values that have shaped others’ lives, historically and internationally.” General education also “teaches students to understand themselves as products of—and participants in—traditions of art, ideas, and values.” And, as the report quite explicitly averred, students “need to a have an understanding of American history.”

Although the Task Force’s initial report underwent several structural permutations—such as the excision of a “Reason and Faith” requirement—its ostensible raison d’être of preparing undergraduates for global citizenship remained, in spirit at least, largely intact. Yet Harvard’s attempts to generally educate its students, despite the apparently hollow platitudes about the importance of understanding traditions and historically-developed ideas, will not include any mandatory study of the past.

At the April 10 Faculty meeting, Professor of History of Art and Architecture Jeffrey F. Hamburger offered an amendment to expand the proposed subject heading “Culture and Belief” to specifically include “History.” Quite reasonably, Hamburger characterized history as a universal academic category, “to the extent that we can claim anything to be a universal category,” and doubted that “culture and belief” could be rendered intelligible without “the historical traditions that inform them.”

A 20 plurality of professors, however, quashed his amendment.

The Faculty’s reticence to accord history its own place within the general education hierarchy raises grave concerns not only about the sincerity of the General Education program’s original goals—which, so it would seem, necessitate some historical literacy—but more importantly about the legitimacy of those goals themselves. The Task Force’s preliminary report emphasized the importance and inherent value of so-called “liberal learning,” defined as the “free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility”—a phrase that was, perhaps for the best, removed by a unanimous vote of the Faculty at that April 13 meeting.

Despite its avowed vindication of contemplative virtues over pre-professional training, the Task Force, however, fails to recognize its own irony. For in aspiring to produce graduates imbued with a sense of international consciousness and responsibility, the proposed General Education program provides a merely instrumental service, albeit with a peculiarly postmodern flavor.

As the report so proudly explains, “general education prepares students to be citizens of a democracy within a global society.” Indeed, such citizenship, as abstract and nebulous as laid out by the report, can claim no “utility” or “relevance” commensurate to those positions at investment banks and consulting firms filled every year by numerous Harvard graduates.

Therein lies the irony.

This vision of liberal—or “general”—education is purely instrumental and shorn of the presumed monetary potential of technical training. It is vocational instruction for a rising generation of cosmopolitans and multiculturalists who, if educated properly, will never question the postmodern orthodoxy with which Harvard has indoctrinated them.

From such a perspective, the Faculty’s hostility toward history should not surprise us. History, like true liberal education, is not instrumental. The study of history demonstrates its value not, as certain academic schools once assumed, through scientific analyses of past events in order to yield guides for the future.

Rather, studying history—like studying literature, philosophy, music, or any of the truly liberal arts—provides real moral edification. The great men and great deeds of the past, equally as much as its tragic figures and catastrophes, testify to the depth and richness of the human experience as much as the poetic fictions of Sophocles and Shakespeare. It is a richness that cannot be conveyed by the simplistic and narrow ideologies which are cloaked by the innocuous-sounding imperative of “global citizenship.”

Most importantly, though, history teaches its students that they are the products of a multifaceted and rich tradition. A consciousness of the past not only offers the instructive examples of prior greatness but also the folly of human pride. As creatures in time, we all are products of history: We only try to escape our past in vain and at our own peril.

An ignorance of history, as Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Byzantine History Angeliki E. Laiou warned, will delude students into presuming “that we, and our societies, have sprung forth like Athena from the head of Zeus: fully formed, fully armed, with no past to remember, forget, or learn from.” Rather than the urbane cosmopolitans it intends to manufacture, products of Harvard’s new anti-historical General Education will lamentably remain intellectual provincials: short-sighted, unreflective, and distinctly illiberal.



Christopher B. Lacaria ’09 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.