In Defense of VES

I am ecstatic to report that my little sister is an undergraduate at Yale for three specific reasons: First, sibling rivalry has always been a healthy part of our relationship and it's fitting that one of us should be a Cantab and the other an Eli. Second, I already have a nice place to stay for the Game next year. And third, my sister intends to major in art.

Throughout its student body and its faculty, Yale--which arguably totes the most developed arts department of any American liberal arts college--overwhelmingly respects and supports its students enrolled in art classes. Arts at Yale is seen for and what it is-respected as: an academic pursuit by those with a passion for and a dedication to the discipline.

Unfortunately, Harvard tells a drastically different story. Each semester hundreds of students are turned away from Visual and Environmental Science (VES) classes not necessarily because of the courses' competitive nature, but more accurately because of the lack of resources allotted to the department. More devastating than the University's maldistribution of money and space, however, is the underlying sentiment among undergraduates that VES does not fit in with the Harvard academic model. Harvard ignorantly writes off VES classes as flaky, insignificant guts, VES concentrators as angst-ridden, black-clad and pretentious bohemians and VES degrees as a wasted education.

Our Harvard experience awards us a formal liberal arts education, enabling us to develop our interpretation of the world through whichever concentration we choose to study. Whether our discipline be economics, literature or VES, our concentration becomes that lens with which we learn to view and understand our surroundings.

Ellen Phelan, the chair of the VES department and the professor of the Practice of Studio Arts, admits that "Harvard has a disgraceful record in its relationship with the arts." More important, she has the stories to prove it.


In 1955 Harvard released the Brown Report, an investigation commissioned by President Nathan M. Pusey '28 to determine whether art was an "appropriate" academic pursuit. The study resoundingly endorsed the visual arts as a novel learning method and way to develop students' analytical skills. Although this triggered the impetus for investment in artistic education across the nation, according to Phelan, the Brown Report had "virtually no impact at Harvard."

The Brown Report conclusions did impact at least one Harvard affiliate: Harvard alumnae Alfred St. Vrain Carpenter '05, who as a result resolved to dedicate a building to the visual arts at Harvard. Although the University tried to cajole Carpenter to donate his dollars elsewhere, Carpenter built his art center under two conditions: that the building be in close proximity to the Fogg Art Museum and that he choose the architect. Only through Carpenter's generous contributions does Harvard have a Center for the Performing Arts--and the only North American building designed by Le Corbusier.

Despite the University's weak endorsement of the arts, there are now about 100 VES concentrators at the school and another 900 undergraduates enrolled in department courses. VES concentrators consistently win Hoopes Prizes for outstanding scholarly work or research.

The arts have been incorporated into other academic disciplines as well. Professor of History James T. Kloppenberg, for example, infuses the visual arts into his History 1661: "Social Thought in Modern America" lectures.

Without doubt, extracurricular ventures into the visual and performance arts should also be endorsed and encouraged on campus. But students who want to study and explore artistic disciplines and who find tremendous satisfaction in drama, music or painting should have the opportunity to do so--without anyone questioning their academic resolve or tenacity.

Granted, there are no midterms, essays, problem sets or readings assigned for many VES classes. Instead, there are eight-hour blocks of time struggling with intricate equipment in the basement of Sever Hall and brutally honest public critiques of finished projects. VES does not offer the satisfaction of there ever being a single correct answer.

Instead, VES teaches a unique perspective about the human cultural and social experience. One senior literature concentrator currently enrolled in his first VES class explains, "I have come to think that there is a lot to be gained by learning to interpret and interact with visual art, visual data, visual literature. In many ways it is as rewarding as written literature or art history. It gives you a great additional perspective on the world to study it intensely even for one class."

Harvard has a mission to educate its students in the disciplines of a liberal arts education. Professor Phelan has a mission of her own: to open up the eyes of the University to the value of the study of the arts. "If the University is like the body of the ideal citizen, it is missing a limb and pretending that it's not missing," she says.

Harvard, your commitment to the arts is dreadfully lacking. Arts First--Harvard's annual token tribute to the celebration of arts--does not compensate for the number of students with a genuine passion for the visual and environmental sciences who are turned away from VES classes each semester. It is easy to see that the act of creating visual art is an intellectual pursuit. Why can't the rest of the University see that too?

Jordana R. Lewis '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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