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Chiseled over the Dexter Gate to Harvard Yard on Mass. Ave. is a surprising inscription. On the street side, the inscription reads "Enter to Grow in Wisdom"--nothing terribly shocking for a University. But the message written on the Yard side of the gate betrays its age: "Depart to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind." These words designate the gate a relic, a memento from a time that has surely left us behind. The inscription, composed by Harvard President Charles William Eliot, class of 1893, elegantly expresses a concept of the university that seems archaic and foreign these days. Eliot and his contemporaries envisioned Harvard not only as an institution of unrivaled scholarship, but as a place for the molding of American citizens.
Granted, citizenship is a hard thing to teach, and there is at least some argument to be had on whether a university such as Harvard should even try its hand at teaching it. But Eliot understood that those fortunate few who receive the benefit of a Harvard education ought to leave here able to serve as model citizens in this republic. If not them, who? Indeed, Eliot advocated going much further than the Kennedy School does today: He believed that Harvard College itself should be a school of public service, that it should hold among its most treasured ideals the development of an excellent citizenry.
Eliot's dream seems distant at the Harvard of today. Perhaps one of the reasons why the Core Curriculum falls short is that it allows students to pass through the Harvard sieve without having attained this crucial education. At times, a student's career at Harvard is much like a Lewis Carrollesque free fall--all the student can do is try to scrape some knowledge off the wall as he drops. But chance more than anything else dictates what each student gets under his fingernails. Enter the proposal for a required course in "great books." Such an addition to Harvard's academic landscape would provide an essential component to any study in the liberal arts.
For one thing, as a happy side effect, a "great books" course would provide Harvard students with valuable exposure to the history of our political thought. We should all have to watch it develop in the classroom, from its infancy in the writings of Plato and Aristotle (though neither was a particular fan of democracy, to be sure) to its coming of age in the works of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Burke. We should have to observe it as it plays itself out in the Federalist Papers, the Constitutional Ratification Debates and beyond.
But perhaps there is something more fundamental to be had from a "great books" curriculum. Perhaps by instituting it, Harvard would be bequeathing American society a humane citizenry. Whether or not it is politically correct to say so, the Western Canon has the potential to infuse the character with a special timbre. It beautifies the mind and exposes the student who plumbs it to a world of majestic and ennobling thoughts and emotions. It is a world that I am only just becoming acquainted with, but I am happily addicted.
This is by no means to suggest that such illumination is not to be had from examples in different world literatures, nor is it to absolve us of our responsibility as world citizens to study other cultures. But I believe it safe to say that, for Americans of today, the self-conscious, self-critical Western Canon provides a level of intellectual fulfillment that is not to be surpassed, and should not be neglected. Should one leave here without knowing his Shakespeare, his Bible, his Dickens, his Melville, his Emerson, his Twain, his Chaucer, his Dante? Given these criteria for exit, I certainly couldn't leave here now, but perhaps when I do, I will be closer to ready.
A "great books" curriculum, such as the one I have so incompletely described, would mandate that every Harvard graduate leave the Yard with the wherewithal to be a true citizen leader. It would create alums who understand the underpinnings of democracy, and, more importantly, who have used the resources of this ancient University to refine their very souls. Such is the stuff of which Harvard men and women should still be made.
This is Eric M. Nelson's last column of the year.
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