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Is Africa Not Foreign?

By Adam I. Arenson

Professor of German Eric Rentschler announced to the teeming masses sardined into the Carpenter Center auditorium last week that the Core office had expected less than 80 people to enroll in his class, Foreign Cultures 76, "Mass Culture in Nazi Germany." Assistant Professor of Philosophy Michael Blake was told his course, Moral Reasoning 62, "Reasoning In and About the Law" should expect 90 students. He has now moved to accommodate the 416 enrolled. Perennial favorites "The History of Life," "The Rome of Augustus" and "Fairy Tales" all have been lotteried.

Something has gone terribly wrong.

The Core program is meant to be a boondoggle for Faculty and students alike. It provides the breadth of knowledge, the theory goes, for the "breadth and depth" President A. Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, envisioned. It is intended to give students a sense of the "approach to knowledge" in numerous fields and allowing Faculty to work on interdisciplinary projects with additional resources from outside their department.

Yet the Core Program, in practice, has an Icarus problem: By aspiring to such lofty goals in so many areas, the wax holding together professors, teaching fellows, students and resources begins to melt. The program crashes to the ground in at least one area a year, and all the participants--students and professors alike--are dashed upon the rocks.

This year, that area is Foreign Cultures. First, the numbers: Including courses that count from other Core areas, there are nine courses this year on Asia, nine on Europe and five on Latin America. There are none on Africa, none on Australia and the Pacific Islands. None on the indigenous, non-English-speaking groups from north of the Rio Grande. There aren't even any bracketed. You would think these places are Antarctica.

According to the spring 1997 Core Review Committee report, the purpose of Foreign Cultures "was to distance students from their limited environment and give them a larger perspective on the world." (The report, in an intriguing footnote, also states that originally all Foreign Cultures classes were intended to "double-count"--not just fit two areas but actually count as two Cores, to cut down on the Core courseload--yet the report states cryptically that this plan was "infeasible.") Yet, of the Foreign Culture courses this year, six of 17 were conducted in a foreign language. If the concept is to reach unfamiliar cultures, wasn't the decision to allow courses in foreign languages to eat up so much of the Core a mistake?

Surely there is merit to courses taught in the language of the culture that count for Foreign Cultures. Yet including them in the Core will eat up valuable resources in the Core Program. This becomes an argument about the Core's greatest injustice: Departmental classes cannot be taken automatically for Core credit.

The situation in Foreign Cultures is the most stark. In an e-mail message, Susan W. Lewis, director of the Core Program, wrote that while students who can blow the space of two, three or four courses in their plans of study pursuing a Foreign Cultures petition outside the Core have a relatively good rate of acceptance, "petitions to count a single department course are denied by the Foreign Cultures committee."

This is the sort of news that will depress Kwabena L. Blankson '01. Blankson is petitioning for History 1907, "West Africa from 1800 to the Present," to count for Historical Studies B credit. He writes, "I realize that many courses have been petitioned without success but I feel that my reasons...are quite compelling," and then recounts how no course on Africa is currently available in either Foreign Cultures or Historical Studies. "If the purpose of the Core is to 'broadly educate every Harvard graduate,'" Blankson writes, "not having an African history course of any sort denies students the opportunity to truly broaden their horizons and learn about a continent that they likely know nothing about."

Lewis wrote in her e-mail message that "the Foreign Cultures committee is hoping to expand its offerings to include courses on Africa and the Pacific Islands," but students are left with the question of when and the Core Program may be left with the question of how. We as undergraduates have four years here; there is not time for more committee reports, more recommendations.

The options seem clear enough. Allow departmental classes to count toward Core areas--specifically, allow selected courses in the history, language and anthropology departments count toward Foreign Cultures. Remove the foreign-language courses from the Core Program's coddling; they will survive as long as they can count. Turn those resources toward course on Africa, Australia, the Pacific Islands and the indigenous and non-English cultures in North America. Make these changes now, for next year.

Counting more courses, on a broad range of subjects, will not just help students like Blankson who want to study regions currently ignored. It will also help the morale of students and professors throughout the Core as overcrowded classes will slim down as students pursue other options.

"I was indeed quite surprised by the turnout for my class, Foreign Cultures 76," Rentschler told me in a voice-mail message. The initial excitement faded into administrative nightmare: "I had no recourse but to lottery my class," Rentschler said. He explained that the nature of the course material requires access to the film archives. The class was also handicapped by another Harvard shortcoming: no film studies program, so few qualified teaching fellows. "I really had to be very, very careful and vigilant about finding people who would be qualified to teach a film course," Rentschler said.

To my final question--about what the Core Program should do to make Foreign Cultures classes go smoothly for students and Faculty--Professor Rentschler said, "I don't have an answer altogether."

Rentschler said he has changed his plans and will offer the course again next spring and has "prioritized all those students who wanted to get in and were not able to this time." In the face of the Core's troubles, one can only hope this will be enough.

Adam I. Arenson '00-'01 is a history and literature concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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