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Brian Palmer's Academy

Where academic ease, celebrity lecturers and dogma turn the rigor of Harvard on its head

By Travis R. Kavulla

I must confess that I was originally going to fashion this column rather polemically. Someone like Lecturer on the Study of Religion Brian C.W. Palmer ’86, I had envisioned writing, deserves fame like the Chicago Seven do. Not in the way of a celebrated academic, but in the style of a disenchanted voice shouting against the powers that be—which, from the ivory tower, Palmer has done frequently in any case.

His class, Religion 1529, “Personal Choice and Global Transformation,” Harvard’s second largest this semester after Ec 10, is taught almost entirely by Palmer-selected guest lecturers, who are questioned by the audience (that is, the students) on any number of different issues du jour that concern the overly-broad course topic.

Perhaps Palmer has managed to attract so many students with his siren’s song because he is constantly so elated to see his students—all 584 of them. He can be spotted in Harvard dining halls more often than any other faculty member (probably including House Masters), includes his home phone number in his frequent class-wide e-mails and is a genial guy to even his critics. After all, it’s hard not to be inspired by Palmer—not after you hear his wavering voice, with its tinges of legitimate conviction not found in so many Harvard faculty members.

More than even his celebrity, though, it’s extremely hard to author a critical column because everything that one could accuse Brian Palmer of with a sense of outrage has been appropriated by Palmerites in their defense.

I might say, for instance, that Brian Palmer plays fast and loose with academics, that his class is bent more around liberal ideology than scholarly pursuits. To which, he and his supporters chime in, “you bet.” At every Palmer event I’ve attended (about five), he references a New York Times article which labels his class, appropriately, “Idealism 101” and distributes a Christian Science Monitor expose that depicts him as a liberal ideologue in and outside the classroom. He was a featured speaker at Harvard’s large anti-war walkout last year, and at every opportunity he gets (from serving as the emcee of an a cappella concert to chatting with students he meets in the Yard), he lets loose his wry sense of humor against the usual targets: George Bush, John Ashcroft, Don Rumsfeld and the boys.

Or I might accuse his class of being an opportunity for an “easy A”—indeed, it’s probably the easiest in the college. Weekly reading averages a couple dozen pages. Students are required to write a 150-word paragraph about what they thought (and, potently, felt) of each celebrity lecturer that comes to speak to Religion 1529. It doesn’t have a midterm; its final is take-home. Indeed, Palmer himself admitted of his offering last spring, “some students take the class because it’s easy.” Against this j’accuse of academic ease, what one would think would be a grave charge at Harvard, I have not a few times been stopped mid-way through my litany by friends thanking me for a “gut” course recommendation.

Or, I could point to the astounding similarities between Religion 1528, “Globalization and Human Values,” which Palmer taught last year, and Religion 1529, “Personal Choice and Global Transformation,” this year’s version, and furrow my brow. If the titles don’t have enough pangs of similarity, then the content certainly does: Many of the same lecturers are on both syllabi, and if compared to one another without reference to the course title, the course descriptions— an informal poll of my friends revealed—are virtually interchangeable.

It’s also easy to criticize his guest lecturers, homogeneously left-wing types who have become the hallmark of Palmer’s classes. In 1529, he labels them “relevant practitioners” of personal choice. One is Noam Chomsky, on both the Religion 1528 and 1529 syllabi, who will (shockingly) not be speaking about linguistics, in which he holds his PhD. Palmer also selected Howard D. Zinn as a lecturer, whose People’s History of the United States takes great care to omit any modicum of praise for Western civilization, when one might choose from the wealth of legit Harvard historians. The list really goes on and on: Robert Reich, Swanee Hunt, Peter Singer and many other more marginal leftists find their way onto the syllabus. Last year, even Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys spoke in Palmer’s class—a “relevant practitioner” of human values, perchance?

So, where’s the outrage? Am I really the only one perturbed that Palmer is allowed to teach a class like this? The Undergraduate Council clearly doesn’t agree with me — that body awarded the lecturer the Levenson Memorial Teaching Prize in 2002. Even expected outlets of discontent don’t pipe up. The Harvard Republican Club? Not a word. The ever-standoffish University President Lawrence H. Summers? Nothing—in fact, he’s a guest lecturer, probably the most conservative on the docket.

I can only hope this kind of critical dialogue is going on behind closed doors. Until then, solace can be had by realizing that Palmer’s departure from Harvard is nigh, and there’s little use raving against a person who’s on his way out thanks to a short-term lecturership contract. But students should nonetheless realize that despite the allure of idealism in measured tones, there should be no mistaking the syndrome which has made Palmer’s classes so acclaimed: Liberal students rush to Palmer’s class for an eloquent affirmation of an already-established world-view, plus an easy A.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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