A Small Niche for Great Books

An Armenian Studies professor’s lonely accomplishment in general education

In academia, where specialization is a virtue that earns tenure, Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies James Russell is a curious person to lead the charge for general education.

Nonetheless, in a two-semester survey of “Literature Humanities,” Russell has carved out a place in the battery of freshmen seminars (usually a portal to Harvard at its most myopic) to provide a semblance of well-rounded, broad education to eager newcomers.

It has long been supposed that no one—neither professors nor students—wants to be troubled by the dead white men who comprise most of any Great Books curriculum. That over 100 freshmen applied to Russell’s fall semester seminar bespeak an unrecognized demand to the contrary.

Once an instructor at Columbia, whose equivalent of the Core still consists of a general education in “Great Books,” Russell specialized in teaching the non-Western components of the curriculum. He has imported this emphasis into his Harvard seminars; alongside Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and the Bible are added the Bhagavad Gita, the Lotus Sutra, and a number of sources on Zoroastrianism.

Sitting in on the course and talking with a number of enrollees, one quickly gets the impression that this is an offering which consumes a large amount of Russell’s and his students’ time.

It helps that Russell demands of his students a “fanatical devotion” to the course. One-on-one interviews to join the class that were supposed to last 15 minutes turned into 3-hour-long roundtables. The class itself meets twice a week for a total of four hours and frequently melts into after-hours, informal discussions at Russell’s Memorial Drive apartment. In all, students commit anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per week on the seminar.

Seemingly intimidating, Russell’s approach is hardly a stuffy, austere pursuit.

First, Russell is tremendously entertaining, packing his informal lectures with one-liners. From Stalin—“the best friend of lepidopterists”—to social sciences—“government and economics are highly advanced forms of witchcraft”—Russell has an opinion on most things, and those opinions are usually very funny, if untamed.

Beyond a sense of humor, Russell’s instruction of Great Books makes good use of his awe-inspiring linguistic talent. Armed with a whiteboard, a recent discussion of Psalms saw Russell explore the origins and departures of the word “holy” from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Old Church Slavonic, Arabic, and Lithuanian. (Later, in the midst of serving Armenian cherry-flavored brandy out of a Diet Pepsi bottle, Russell declined to tabulate how many languages he knows, but it seems they would number about 20.)

Seminars in the humanities are pervaded by a one-upmanship in which undergrads clamor to hear themselves speak—usually to little educative avail. But while other Faculty are inexplicably reticent to guide discussions, Russell rightly figures that students can best learn by hearing him talk. And talk he does. Beyond the assigned Psalms, for instance, Russell embarked on lengthy comparisons to the Talmud and the Hadith. Students are mercifully relegated to the role of interlocutor, and even then, Russell shows no hesitation with swooping down, fatherly, to clarify and make pronouncements outright.

In a land of facilitators, Russell is one of those rare educators.

The courses’ workload and Russell are not for everyone—although that matters little since 80 percent of applicants were turned away, and upperclassmen have no chance of enrolling at all.

One of the larger ironies of Harvard’s free range education, where students may roam a 938-page course catalog and pick whatever makes them happy, is that amidst the spasms of academic choice, course offerings have often become so peripheral that the only recourse to general education is to take impersonal, large surveys like History 10a (120 students) or English 10a (141 students). Those students who would prefer a 15-person Great Books seminar as opposed to, by way of example, an 11-person offering on “The Female Body in Modern America” are typically out of luck.

Yale has solved this problem already. That school’s application-required Directed Studies program offers freshmen the opportunity to take three, year-long general education courses in literature, philosophy, and history and politics. The course is taught entirely in small seminars, and prominent faculty sign up for the same reason they teach freshmen seminars here—the opportunity to make an indelible mark on the minds of young and eager learners. In total, 125 students this year enrolled in Yale’s program, accounting for about one-ninth of the freshmen class.

In terms of rigor, subject matter, and the level of student enthusiasm, Russell’s seminar portends what a larger, opt-in Great Books program could be. Sadly, so long as Great Books at Harvard is a cross borne by a solitary Armenian Studies professor, it can never accommodate the hundreds of students who are eager to take such courses. That can only be achieved by a well-articulated, top-down initiative that bears the imprimatur of Larry Summers, Deans William Kirby or Benedict Gross, the so-called “Gang of Five” who overtook the curricular review this past summer, or whoever has the semblance of authority and courage to call the pedagogical shots around here.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06-’07 is a history concentrator affiliated with Mather House. His column appears regularly.