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

By Zachary R. Mider and Daniel P. Mosteller, Crimson Staff Writerss

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.

Recent criticism of the department--aside from whispered asides at the Faculty Club--has come from the cultural right. The National Review's Guide to Colleges advises conservative-leaning students to avoid Harvard's English courses, on the basis that traditional canons of literature are sacrificed to political correctness and trendy theories.

But the most prominent critic has left-wing credentials.

Camille Paglia, a firebrand scholar of art history who teaches at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has made criticism of most modern literary theory her raison d'tre.

In an open letter to Harvard students published in The Crimson in 1994, she urged students to "end the era of gimmicky theory" brought on by Harvard's literary establishment.

The letter included a not-too-veiled barb against Johnson, saying her scholarly interests were dictated by what was fashionable at the moment.

Further speeches and interviews--including several in 1997 and 1998--attacked Kenan Professor of English Majorie J. Garber and also Levin Professor of Literature Stephen Greenblatt, who has written on Marxism and its application to literature.

In subsequent interviews with The Crimson and at speeches here on campus, Paglia has extended her criticism.

But can concentrators still read the classics if they want, wrapping themselves in Milton instead of Foucault? According to interviews with students in the department and with professors with a host of different political views, the answer is yes.

First, many administrators say the critics confuse the English department, which has a canon already established, and the comparative literature department, which is heavily oriented toward theory.

Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies Katherine E. Boutry says English may get criticized just because it is better known. Literature, she says, is "not part of a standard curriculum" like English.

Marquand Professor Lawrence E. Buell, the English department chair, says charges of political bias are inaccurate.

"In the national scene, we don't look like a radical department," he says. "We look like a department that has held the line."

Buell says Harvard has made room for new scholarship.

"Our way of operating should be to balance between new, experimental scholarship and more traditional work. We would be foolish if we did not recognize that the field evolves," he says.

Most concentrators say they agree.

"I think both views of English have a lot going for them," says Jared S. White '00, an English concentrator. "I don't think that the English department has dismantled your ability to read great books," he says.

Even those who say they have sympathies for Paglia's opinions say Harvard is the wrong target for her ire.

"I think that Paglia's critique is valid," says Ross G. Douthat '02, the editor of the conservative Harvard Salient.

"[But] at a place like Harvard, however, [where types] of postmodern theory has influenced the academy, there are still plenty of traditional English classes," he says.

"You read all sorts of alarming things about politicization of the academy-I think that in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s it reached a fever pitch.... Harvard in my experience has done a good job of avoiding that," Douthat says.

Other students point to the presence of scholars like Porter University Professor Helen H. Vendler, whose work, they say, is solidly traditional.

But that is not to say there is no left-leaning tint to the department.

"English departments, by the nature of the beast, are always a bit more liberal," than the average population, Boutry says.

"The reason is that we offer choice. We still maintain very rigorous and traditional requirements. We tend to be conservative," he says.

Humans and Numbers

But the Department of Economics presents a different problem.

Since neoclassical economists tend to focus on market solutions to vexing economic questions, the political orientation of many courses tends to be seen as conservative.

"Economics in general is a pretty conservative discipline," says Christopher L. Foote [Class Year?], an assistant professor of economics and director of undergraduate studies in the department. "The core of economics is the invisible hand."

Students attuned to more liberal perspectives say they are concerned.

The department's introductory course, Social Analysis 10, "Principles of Economics", is the focus of intense criticism by concentrators seeking alternative viewpoints.

Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein '61, a former chair of President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisors from 1982 to 1984 and a frequent essayist on conservative economics, does not try to mask his political leanings, concentrators say.

"Martin Feldstein can't keep his political agenda out of the class," says Claudia A. Sitgraves '02, treasurer of Students for Humane and Responsible Economics (SHARE) and an applied math concentrator with a focus on economics.

SHARE was first established in 1994 by a group of progressive students--perhaps the only officially recognized student group whose existence is based on the alleged political bias of a specific course.

Members hand out pamphlets critical of the class before lectures and hold dinner discussions.

Feldstein says he has offered to work with members of SHARE on their concerns, but "they have not taken me up on this offer."

"I have encouraged SHARE and said that I would help them if their aim is, as they say, to encourage more discussion with faculty members," Feldstein wrote in an e-mail message.

Commodities and Conservatives

Says social studies concentrator Albert H. Cho '02, "labor economics [at Harvard] is taught as though labor is a commodity. We're talking about commodifing humans."

According to Seyla Benhabib, a left-leaning Harvard political scientist, this raises an ethical quandary for the entire discipline.

"The market privileges a model of unencumbered, free ownership where anything and everything can be converted into a commodity," Benhabib says. "But not everything can or should be: health care and babies, education and fresh air may not be the kinds of 'goods' which we, as a society, want to treat as commodities."

Students also criticize economists for their focus on numbers and statistics, rather than on humans. "Economics professors tend to take mathematical models and make them into normative models in the real world," says Sitgraves. "They create these models under a number of assumptions, some of which do not hold in real-world situations. Economists are creating models that are getting further and further away from reality."

But Foote, who teaches in the Department, dismisses the claim that statistical economics can't explain actual economic conditions.

"We teach the tools to attack the problems," he says. "Economists are interested in social issues, but try to attack the problems with the most powerful mathematics it can. That is the strength of neoclassical economics."

The Department's chair, Jeffrey G. Williamson, says that graduate students interested in social policy tend to want a more hands-on curricula, which professional public policy schools, like the Kennedy School of Government, can provide.

And Feldstein says while the department does have a wide range of views, it can't cover everything.

"Any member of our department can teach any course he or she wants," Feldstein wrote in an e-mail message. "So if there are points of view not expressed, it is because a department with a wide range of members does not find those views interesting enough." Williamson says he and the department are receptive to undergraduate students' suggestions about how to improve the department.

"If they hammered on the door...something might happen," says Williamson. "The more we get student's voices, the better [the department] is going to be."

In Context

Both the English and Economics departments have wrestled with the perception of curricular bias for years now. But the department's administrators say critics should look at Harvard in context.

"Other economists, oddly enough, view this department as liberal," says economics chair Williamson.

And though Buell denies it, it may be prescient that the former center for Study for Cultural Studies has changed its name at a time when some say cultural studies is becoming outmoded.

"The general trend in a lot of English departments around the country is starting to turn a little bit away from the forms of cultural criticism that were in vogue," said Adam F. Bradley, a fourth-year graduate student in English said.

"I'd be eager to see where Harvard decides to go, because to some extent that will help set the trend."

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