The Celtic Myth

* Does Harvard's course catalog contain a secret?

My high school calculus teacher once told me a secret about publishing: the fictional biography.

In his spare time, he worked on a musical encyclopedia which included biographies of famous (and not quite so famous) musicians throughout history. In order to ensure that competing publications did not rip off their work, my teacher and his colleagues would include one false biography to serve as a potential tip-off.

I recently recalled this arcane tidbit from adolescence past, as I leafed through my trusty courses of Instruction. With a generous stay of execution (i.e. a 9th term), I was hoping for a couple of cool courses to finish out my academic career.

But as I flipped through the pages of the course catalog, I noticed some intriguing details that had slipped by me in the past.


For example, did you know that we have a Celtic Languages and Literatures Department? Not a mere "committee" like Women's Studies, but a full-fledged academic department. Well, the faculty includes only three people: the department chair, a lecturer and a visiting professor (from Dublin, of course). Also, most of the courses are not offered this year.

But, this spring, "Intermediate Modern Irish" is supposedly available-for those who have already completed Celtic 132: "Modern Irish." The courses emphasize "pronunciation" and "conversation."

Imagine that. (I did.) "Please pass the boiled cabbage, mum...Not until you've finished your pint of Guinness, lad!" And, by the way, that's Celtic as in "Keltic."

Fearing I had missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime, I called the department for information. They assured me that undergraduates are not allowed to concentrate in Celtic-unless one creates a Special Concentration. How convenient.

Or one could make Celtic an emphasis within the Folklore and Mythology department. I'd certainly heard of that one. I always get a good chuckle. I imagined that "Folk'n Myth" concentrators must be given a special seminar on how to break the news to their parents. "We're spending a 100 grand so that you can read fairy tales!....Well, er, they're not really fairy tales and besides Harvard's got a great department and..."

Well, I should confess my concentration: philosophy. But my field has undeniable legitimacy simply because it's so old and forbidding. Anyone can read fairy tales. Even little children. Especially little children! Sure, Socrates did tell the Myth of Er in Plato's Republic, but I like to think he was being facetious.

And then there were two other departments I noticed: Linguistics and Statistics. I had forgotten how much they annoyed me. The Statistics department graduated one whole person last year. Hell-o!

And, a few moons ago, Harvard administrators quite reasonably decided to shut down the tiny Linguistics department. Then there were protests, as the dozen or so linguistics students took up tongues against their oppressor. Their angry letters epitomized excellent grammar and syntax, though they were most certainly devoid of common sense and the old Crimson spirit.

And I heard a rumor at the time concerning the illustrious MIT professor (and language-maven) Noam Chomsky. According to anonymous sources (i.e. my imagination), Chomsky circulated a devastating manifesto warning of a universal linguistic apocalypse if Harvard allowed its department to dissolve into oblivion. Needless to say, as I flipped through the current Courses of Instruction, the Linguistics department was still there.

Sometimes I wonder if any unwitting colleges elsewhere have entire departments devoted to Folklore and Mythology. I'm sure some do. And I'll bet Harvard administrators get a good chuckle.

Of course, if the catalog is copy righted, Harvard could take the Ivy League wannabes to court.