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HARVARD'S most intense class struggle happens twice per year, for about a week each time. It's called shopping period.
One somehow expects struggles, even struggles with deadlines, to include some semblance of vigor, hope and enthusiasm. Harvard's twice-annual shopping period struggle, however, is marked above all by resignation.
We have resigned ourselves to the way things are. We have even founded a cult of cynicism in order to celebrate our resignation. Choosing classes means finding words to fill in study cards. Taking classes means finding words to fill in blue books.
The forces creating the prevailing February winds of resignation, cynicism, irony and inertia are numerous and complicated. I don't have the solution.
Yet for a couple of hours last Wednesday afternoon I thought about solutions. I experienced academic excitement. I was reminded that there is nothing natural or inevitable about our cool aloofness toward classes at Harvard.
A university in which going to class is truly meaningful could theoretically exist in practice. It could even be called Harvard. With a hell of a lot of change.
COURSES of Instruction includes at least one meaningful offering this term: Women's Studies 10b, "Current Problems in Feminist Theory." If the course title itself doesn't particularly convey excitement, the first class meeting decidedly did. The instructor, Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Alice Jardine, is the only tenured member of Harvard's faculty with whom I have ever looked out of classroom windows on to the world.
Not that all other classes at Harvard are objectively bad. Despite peer pressure, I never once doubted Stephen Jay Gould's brilliance during an entire semester of Science B-16, "The History of Earth and of Life."
But in retrospect, Gould's course, like most at Harvard, was uncomfortably self-enclosed. The focus was on ideas as "neat" things-in-themselves. It was enjoyable, but not all that "world-important."
That is, I never had the sense that any of the interesting ideas under discussion were supposed to change the way I thought about the world after I left Science Center C. Even though the course was about "life," the life we heard and read about was never linked to the lives of real people without famous names.
A typical philosophy course here, to cite another, especially ironic example, aims all too frequently not at getting students to think about the world in new ways, but at "strengthening your knowledge" of philosophy.
Because Women's Studies has not yet dried up into a "field," the notion of "strengthening your knowledge" of the subject in a compartmentalized, abstract way holds no sway.
Abandoning the standard academic practice of separating the intellectual from the personal and the political, Professor Jardine candidly affirms that the three categories are inextricably intertwined. If gender plays a fundamental role in the way we see and think about the world and everybody in it, then the study of gender must interact with living in and changing the world.
I DON'T intend to write an advertisement for a particular class. Not everyone at Harvard can take Women's Studies 10b this semester. But that isn't the problem.
The fundamental problem is that Harvard is not overflowing with courses taught in a similar spirit of relevance; of loyalty not to a field but to a subject, and to relating that subject to you and to me, not as students but as people.
It would be naive to suggest that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) could make some policy decisions that would transform overnight our attitudes toward education.
Still, it could certainly do some things to help. Departments should tenure junior professors who like to teach and who are good at it. (That this obvious point still needs to be made is incredible.)
Departments should hire women scholars, minority scholars and scholars whose work questions rather than rein-forces the conventions of their discipline.
I don't want to blindly attack old white men. I plan to be one myself some day. The point is that different voices are absolutely necessary to bring school and life back together.
FAS cannot afford simply to rely on its individual departments, or even its individual members to be innovative. It must actively foster institutional innovation.
For example, instead of thinking about reforms of the Core curriculum in terms of its current discipline-oriented categories, FAS should look into creating a whole new sort of Core that focuses on issues such as gender, race and class--a curriculum that would consciously attempt to make a Harvard education into something that will serve us in the real world.
I don't mean something that would improve our position in the job market, but something that would serve us personally, politically, really.
Otherwise we're all wasting our time here. That's where cynicism comes from: when you realize the meaninglessness of what you do.
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