Choosing A Field of Concentration


Most men know pretty clearly in advance why they choose to concentrate in English. English literature (including American literature) is one of the most immediately attractive fields of study, and one which everybody knows something of before he comes to college. A knowledge of it leads to, or aids in, certain large popular callings in after-life, and offers an agreeable and stimulating side occupation for everybody. Some, either avowedly or secretly, choose the field because they think it is easy. To them all one can say is that college courses in English are not as easy as they look, and that standards and requirements are stiffened in proportion as a subject is easy. Without dilating farther on such topics at this point, the best way of introducing the subject of English as a field of concentration is to say certain things about the conditions of studying it at Harvard and to systematize and describe the courses.

In the first place, concentrators in English take their general final examinations on the field as do concentrators in most other fields. The details of this matter need not be presented here, but the intention, as usual, is to ascertain that a student when he graduates not merely has at one time known certain part of the field, but still retains a general knowledge of all of it as well as a knowledge of certain allied subjects. Further, concentrators in English are aided by tutors, not only to prepare for their individual examinations, but also to acquire the habit of reading good literature and of forming their own opinions about it. Every year the tutors devote more and more time to each student. One of the main purposes of the tutor is to suggest reading (which shall be adapted individually to each student) and to encourage independent reaction to it; in contrast with courses, in which individual students necessarily adapt themselves more or less to the professors' outlining of the subject (though professors heartily welcome independent opinion in the student).

This idea of freedom, and adaptation to individual aptitudes, also runs through the new system of the department for Honors in English. Hereafter students may follow either of two plans (each of which requires a thesis). The more general plan, intended for men whose aim is what may be called general cultivation, requires at least five elective courses in English, one of which must be in the earlier English literature. Three additional courses may be either in English or in allied fields. It is expected that men who pursue this system will read particularly widely. The other plan is intended more for the man who means to pursue the study of English farther. It requires at least six elective courses in English, at least two others in English or allied fields, and a reading knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, the earliest form of the language. It is desired that all candidates for honors in English shall have some knowledge of Continental literature; among the modern literatures, next in importance to French and German is Italian. Of special importance are the classics. In fact, if a man plans to proceed to graduate work in English, a very good plan is to concentrate as an undergraduate in the classics, or in the classics and history. Both form an admirable foundation for effective study of English.

The courses in English open to under-graduates may be divided into seven groups, dealing with writing, public speaking and the study of language and literature. English literature is understood as including all literature written in the English language, American literature as well as British. The former is more or less dealt with in some of the courses on British literature, and various courses are given specifically on American authors and literary history.

The first group of courses includes those in English composition, of which there are many, adapted to students of all degrees of maturity and proficiency. Inasmuch as writing is an art, which means doing rather than knowing, and as the function of a university is primarily to teach knowledge, no student is permitted to offer for the degree an unlimited number of these courses. But nearly all of the other courses require such individual reaction to what has been learned, and such self-expression, as is involved by writing about it.


Secondly, a certain amount of work in public speaking is offered in the English department. This involves the preparation and delivery of speeches, a useful form of English composition. It involves, also, discovering and, if possible, correcting defects in the use of the voice, Work of this sort is useful as a preparation in after life.

A third group of courses surveys pretty much the whole field of English literature. English 28, for example, surveys the whole of English literature from the beginning to the present day. It is recommended especially for students who are not proposing to concentrate in English. Those who are may advantageously pursue either this or a series of courses dealing with certain periods, which cover the same ground more intensively. The lectures in English 28 are given in successive groups by various of the older professors. English 41 is a similar course but confines itself to modern English literature. English 79 surveys English literature by types, familiarizing students with fundamental critical ideas and terms, and interpreting the purposes and methods of the various types of poetry and prose. This course is exceptionally advantageous for those who are intending to concentrate in English. It shows, so to speak, "what it is all about". Finally, English 78 introduces to the main facts in the social, political, and intellectual history of the various periods of English literature. It helps one to realize that literature grows out of and expresses the life of its day, and that it can hardly be understood without some knowledge of that. Literature is not an orchid.

Fourth, pretty much the whole of English history is also covered by courses devoted to certain periods. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, a rise and fall of certain elementary