Curricula Wars: Are We Learning The Rest of the Story?

Words and labels are important. English professors know this more than anyone. So when Harvard's Center for Literary and Cultural Studies changed its name this fall to the Center for the Humanities, it is hard to believe the new moniker was adopted in a political vacuum.

Less-than-civil debates have infused the social sciences in recent years, with charges that professors are using the classroom to advance a political agenda.

Two Harvard departments, Economics and English and American literatures and languages, have been reproached for alleged biases in their curricula.

Specifically, some students criticize the Department of Economics for focusing too much on neoclassical theories--those that argue interactions in the free market best set prices and wages. According to neoclassical theory, individual decisions about what to buy, who to work for and where to live are paramount to the study of economics.


What is missing, according to critics, is a consideration of the diverse social effects of the theory--and an examination of the belief that all goods should be commodified.

Practical applications of neoclassical theories tend to favor conservative economic viewpoints, according to the detractors.

Harvard's English department, on the other hand, catches flak for being too trendy, dumping study of the canon of Western literature in favor of highly politicized approaches of study like queer theory and post-colonial studies.

Critics--many of whom teach at other universities--question, for example, the technique of reading Shakespeare as a product of the author's social condition, rather than his artistry.

A History of Harvard English Criticism

If the English department has swung to the left, it has not been without resistance. When the first wave of theory-oriented professors prepared to begin teaching in the English department, they were not greeted with tolerant smiles.

One of the first quibbles was about the technique of "deconstruction," a French mode of study in which words, phrases and authorial intention are shown to be unstable, leading to the conclusion that there is no "proper" way of reading literature.

In 1983, then-Porter University Professor Walter J. Bate '39 described deconstruction in a Washington Post interview as a "nihilistic view of literature, of human communication and of life itself."

Barbara E. Johnson, a leading practitioner of the method teaching at Yale at the time, dismissed the criticism, accusing Bates of being a "white, dominant class Harvard-affiliated male."

Later that year, Johnson herself was at Harvard---where she still teaches today.

Other members of this new generation of scholars soon arrived. Harvard, which had been slow to warm to "lit-crit," had succumbed to the trends of the day.

Recommended Articles