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Closing the Door on the Past

By Jenny E. Heller

During the last few weeks, it seems we've been inundated by the tradition of Harvard. Last weekend, the Head of the Charles Regatta graced the river for its 35th year. Crowds gathered at Weeks footbridge, as they do every October.

They watched sculls slip by seemingly without effort in the sport that has demanded so much time through the decades from Harvard men and, lately, from Harvard women. As befits a traditional race, the spectators basked in the sun and munched on fried dough, hot dogs and junk food of unknown origin.

Earlier this month, Harvard announced to a crowd of administrators and what it euphemistically calls "friends" that the University had, once again, filled its coffers higher than any other university in history. The $2.325 billion Harvard raised in its capital campaign, mostly from alums, served to underscore the economic power of its tradition.

But, to make certain no one missed that point, the University made its announcement from the Manhattan Harvard Club, a bastion of the old guard with worn red carpets, dark wood panelling, deep leather chairs and dim lighting.

The Club is redolent with the atmosphere of Harvard as it was before any of us, or many of our parents, were even born.

Last month, we all arrived on campus to find the physical restoration of tradition. Construction workers were scaling Memorial Hall to erect the new tower at its top. This $4 million project is designed to restore the architecturally grand building to its old glory.

And we are, of course, inescapably surrounded by reminders that we are students at the oldest university in the United States, whether we are criss-crossing the Yard or relaxing in the courtyards of the many red-brick Houses.

But, despite all this emphasis on tradition, Harvard has shifted decidedly away from the traditional in its approach to the intellectual side of life.

This shift appears in many classes, where, instead of demanding that students first master the scholarship that has evolved over the centuries, the first day begins with theories of postmodernist thought or deconstructionism.

Almost no one--certainly not I--would deny that recognizing, studying and criticizing the latest in academic thought is important or that modern texts can be fascinating.

But I would posit that we cannot be credible critics of any academic discipline, and especially not of its historical canon, unless we first recognize, study and criticize the great flow of scholarship that came before us or our modern critics.

The curriculum as it is now designed does not grant us the privilege of learning the basics. The limited scope of the concentration and the relatively small number of electives we have to play with do not provide for a broad-based education. Since there are only three types of courses--concentration, electives and the Core--we are forced to resort to the Core for much of our academic breadth. But there we find only increasing specialization.

For example, anyone looking for a survey of political philosophy among our Moral Reasoning classes will be disappointed to find no such thing offered. You can learn about "the ethics of everyday life" or "reason and morality," but you cannot study philosophy from Aristotle through Bertrand Russell.

I fulfilled this Core requirement by taking Moral Reasoning 54, "If There Is No God, All Is Permitted: Theism and Moral Reasoning." The course piqued my incipient enthusiasm for philosophy but, because I am not a philosophy concentrator, I will never be able to study Rene Descartes or John Locke in the context of their philosophical progenitors and successors.

Historical Studies presents another case that makes my point. These Core courses either address themes across history or narrow time periods, such as the English Revolution, the Cuban Revolution or the World Wars. Doesn't it make sense to study an area's or nation's history broadly before delving into thematic history or history-by-the-decade?

Although I will satisfy these two Core requirements, I will not have the chance to study the history of America, a subject my school in Belgium ignored so it could teach us about Europe.

The College administration defends its Core curriculum by saying that the courses aim to expose us to different approaches in thinking and learning in different disciplines. No one can oppose such a laudable goal. But why can't we combine the study of approaches with the most classical backgrounds? To this, there has been no answer.

Next year, I and all of my classmates will graduate from Harvard. As a concentrator in French and Italian literature, I will know more than most about Moliere, Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, and much about their Italian counterparts. In my case, however, I will have picked up only snippets of information from a diverse but disordered array of other disciplines--the English Revolution, early Christian literature in America, basic economics.

But I--and I suspect a number of you--will pass through Johnston Gate on graduation day having never experienced the thrill of a classic course we simply could not fit in--in my case a survey of the history of America or a survey of the history of art.

This disregard for the value of the traditional is not confined only to the classroom.

Take theater as a case in point. Much of what is called theater on this campus focuses on the bizarre or the surreal. Students often stage their productions in non-traditional venues considered artsy or experimental. While these spaces can sometimes add to an audience's understanding of a play, they can also make it more difficult to hear to actors or can limit audience size or performance space.

More often than seems necessary, drama groups bypass the greats of a genre which ranges from Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams in order to produce an experimental--some might say skewed--event.

Some variation from well-known scripts and established playwrights broadens our horizons. But today at Harvard it has become difficult to find a Shakespearean play staged in its original manner.

For example, my first year at Harvard, Macbeth was the fall production on the Loeb Mainstage. I arrived at the auditions excited by the possibility of performing in a Shakespeare play. Soon, however, I realized that the director planned to change the traditional interpretation of some of the characters.

Tradition, which is so ubiquitous in so many ways at Harvard, is not the exclusive domain of curmudgeons who live in the past. We all welcome the advent of the new--some of it may survive the trials of time and some may not.

But, as we all tread our paths relentlessly into the future, let's not fear to give the legacy of the past its due regard. Someday, what are now the newest of your ideas or mine will, after all, be relegated to that past.

Jenny E. Heller '01, a Crimson editor, is a French and Italian concentrator in Lowell House.

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