Attempts "To See Life Clearly and See It Whole"--Offers Opportunity for Comparison With Past

The article printed below is the eighth of a series written at the request of the Crimson and designed as a guide to undergraduates in selecting fields of concentration. These articles will cover all of the main divisions under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.


"The Twentieth Century is an age of specialization." Most of us will agree with this statement; some of us, perhaps, are occasionally inclined to feel that it is an age of over-specialization. That we live in a materialistic age as well, is also beyond serious contradiction. These things being true, it seems important for us who live in the twentieth century to pay particular attention to other and less material eras in the world's history, in order that a succeeding epoch may strike a balance between two extremes. On the other hand, it is more than possible that we are nearer the truth today than in any other period of the world's history; if this be true, then the broader our view of past ages the more likely we shall be to recognize the truth of our own day when we meet it. It is well, there- fore, that a college such as Harvard offer to its students a few fields of "concentration"--but not too many--designed primarily to survey as broadly as possible the achievements and the failures of the past.

In the Middle Ages a student occupied himself with every known department of learning. The sum of the world's wisdom was then but a fraction of the material which the student of today must master before he can be said to have made a beginning in even one branch of twentieth century learning. With the coming of the Renaissance men's minds were stimulated and enlivened by a multitude of new emotions and discoveries. The student strove for omniscience no less than the artist or the man of letters. Leonardo da Vinci was, in his day, as great a scientist and engineeer as he was a painter. In the field of science, however, his work has been superseded, while his painting still lives; so we are prone to forget that in his lifetime he spent almost as much time at one as at the other. Even in the Renaissance it was possible for a diligent and brilliant student to cover nearly all branches of human knowledge and to be proficient in several of the arts. As the generations passed, however, and as the mass of intellectual and scientific discovery increased, this 'omniscience became more and more difficult, until in our day it is quite impossible. The pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Omniscience, quite rightly, is no longer a virtue; if seriously attempted it leads too often to superficiality, and superficiality is as far from the truth as the statement of the specialist who said that the downfall of Napoleon was entirely due to the economic factors involved. As is generally the case, neither extreme is safe ground; the specialized knowledge of today may often be as far from reality as were the universal generalities of the Middle Ages.

Aims to Give Complete Picture

This belief led to the establishment, some fifteen years ago, of a field of concentration known as History and Literature. It was felt that one could scarcely comprehend the true significance of any period in the world's development merely by an examination of the important events of its history, of its constitutional development or of its foreign policy. One must also know what the people of that period thought, what they talked about, with what problems their intellects were busy. One could, it is true, write an extremely valuable and accurate history of Boston compiled wholly from the archives in City Hall. This would be an important work and of considerable use to students and scholars, but it might very well lead future readers to form a very erroneous opinion of the inhabitants of Boston, of the variety of their intellectual interests, or of their scientific and literary achievements.

It has been well said that "History does for the race what living does for the individual." If we accept this as a working definition, our survey of any period in the world's history must be as complete as possible or we shall draw false conclusions, because our evidence does not enable us to visualize the period as a whole. Half trutlis are often more misleading than downright falsehoods. For example, we are just beginning to realize the importance of the psychological factor in the progress of mankind. Economic history, too, as we know it is scarcely seventy-five years old. To master thoroughly any subdivision of the world's history today is the work of a lifetime, and for the general student it is often dangerous to assume that a minute knowledge of a small portion of the history of a country or of a century will enable him to generalize successfully about the rest of it.

Literature Outline Necessary

Thus far we have spoken only of history. It is not an unnatural question to ask why history and literature are grouped together in this combined field. Would not history and philosophy, perhaps, be an even better combination? One cannot, indeed, appreciate any period without some acquaintance with its philosophy, but to find its philosophy one must turn to its literature, and not merely to the literature of the professed philosophers. Great as Locke and Hume are, they do not begin to sum up in their pages all the philosophical thought of Eighteenth Century England. Their importance is beyond question, but could one get anything like a complete picture of that era without some consideration of Addison, Swift, Defoe, Fielding, Johnson, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Adam Smith? Man has always expressed his noblest thoughts in the noblest literature of which he was capable; for several hundred years he has been equally careful to preserve for posterity a record of his intimate life, his amusements and his ambitions in the form of letters and journals. These records help us to understand how men thought, and to understand how men thought is to go more than half-way towards understanding the age in which they lived. The literature and the history of a period are so closely interwoven that it is almost impossible to separate them--in fact, until our day, no one has tried to separate them. For example we may learn much about the attitude of England toward Napoleon by an examination of the records of Parliament, but we must turn to Coleridge before we dare say that we understand this attitude. In America the development of the original thirteen states into a unified nation, conscious and proud of its independent existence, can be traced in our literature no less surely than in the pages of Channing.

Field Is Entity in Itself

I hope I have made it clear that the field of History and Literature is designed primarily for those men who have, shall we say, a philosophic turn of mind. At all events, they must be interested in cause and effect, they must have the capacity and the background to see the inter-relation of events, and must be possessed of sufficient imagination to apply the lessons of the Past to the problems of the Future. Anyone who selects History and Literature because he wishes to avoid the economic or constitutional work necessary for concentration in "straight History," or because he objects to the mechanical requirements of the several departments of literature, will be sorely disappointed. The approach is quite different, but the drawbacks which such a student finds in the other departments will many of them be present here. The growth of institutions and economic factors are no less a part of the picture which History and Literature tries to give than are poetry and philosophy. If a man has not an elementary knowledge of the fundamentals of history, he should think carefully before choosing this field; if he does not enjoy reading, he should undoubtedly go elsewhere. There is very little dull reading to be done here, but the amount of "good reading" is considerable and requires the type of student who reads easily and enjoys it. Lastly, this is not a field which attempts to straddle two other departments. It is an entity in itself. Its ideal is to portray an epoch in man's development from as many sides as possible; to take a portion of the life of the Past and, as Matthew Arnold said, "to see life clearly and see it whole.