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Upper-level FAS administrators have deferred a push from professors seeking to create a great books program within General Education, citing a lack of resources due to the financial crisis.
Dean of Undergraduate Education and Gen Ed committee chair Jay M. Harris—who petitioned his superiors for the funds to make such a program possible—recently e-mailed the ad hoc committee members to inform them that the plan is on hold due to a lack of funds, though he and the Gen Ed committee remain committed to the project, according to history professor David R. Armitage, who co-chaired the ad hoc faculty committee that had been exploring the possibility of a great books track within Gen Ed.
When the great books committee first formed last fall, the expectation was that the program would start soon, according to David Damrosch, a visiting professor from Columbia who has been involved in the committee’s discussions and will be taking over as chair of the comparative literature department next year.
Armitage said that the committee was just starting to gain momentum when Harris relayed the administration’s verdict, dealing what Armitage suggested may be a blow to the efficacy of the Gen Ed program as a whole.
“If General Education does not have a fundamental program like the one that we are beginning to consider, we will be failing Harvard’s undergraduates by not providing them with a basic opportunity for their education,” he said.
Armitage added that as a result of the decision, the great books committee will no longer be convened because he does not want to waste the members’ time discussing a program that may not come to fruition.
A ‘SPONTANEOUS’ MOVEMENT
The recent movement for a Harvard great books program started at a “spontaneous” gathering of about a dozen professors from a variety of disciplines at the Faculty Club in fall 2007, according to Armitage. There was a sense of excitement at that first meeting, he said, since all the professors there expressed commitment to teaching in a program dedicated to foundational texts.
From there, an ad hoc committee to explore the possibility of building a great books program—co-chaired by Armitage and English professor Marjorie Garber—formed this year under the purview of the Gen Ed committee.
But after meeting a few times last semester, the committee found itself waiting for Harris to verify whether funds would be available for a potential program to proceed in the current economic climate.
The verdict ended up being no.
Although Harris declined to comment for this article, the professors involved said that he strongly backed the plan and attempted to convince his superiors to fund it.
Such support seems consistent with Harris’ resume, which includes a bachelor’s and Ph.D. degree from Columbia—one of the few remaining universities that can lay claim to a required great books curriculum. In the late 1980s, Harris even taught in the university’s Core program, which emphasizes a grounding in canonical texts. Damrosch and Armitage—also Columbia expatriates—once taught in the same curriculum.
A FOUNDATIONAL CURRICULUM
Even supporters of a great books program said they believed that student enthusiasm was not widespread enough to warrant making such a curriculum a requirement. Many professors interviewed for this article said that it is simply not in Harvard’s DNA to require students to take specific courses. The College, they said, has always opted for more choice in undergraduates’ courses of study.
But the program’s many proponents offered a variety of reasons, both practical and intellectual, for why a great books curriculum would at least be useful on an optional basis.
Yiddish literature professor Ruth R. Wisse said that it would be intellectually fulfilling to confront the greatest works that have shaped Western civilization, and that the canon reinforces the idea of a common culture in which everyone has a part. Committee members appear to have had even wider ambitions—proposing plans to integrate world literature into any great books program from the start, according to Damrosch.
Others said that they felt that what Armitage called “a radical move for students to deploy their intellectual armory” might in fact be a very sensible move to complement the College’s soon-to-be-launched Gen Ed curriculum.
English professor Louis Menand—one of the architects of the Gen Ed program—said that he would love to see great books courses being taught in the new curriculum since they “would look new” amidst a Gen Ed slate heavily populated with curricular holdovers.
Philosophy professor Sean D. Kelly, who was on the great books committee, also stressed the great books’ compatibility with Gen Ed’s emphasis on subject matter rather than methods of knowing.
But some professors are warier about the idea of a great books program within Gen Ed.
“We have a Gen Ed program,” said history professor Charles S. Maier ’60. “I think to run two programs sets up an unhealthy—it just sets up the idea that we don’t know what to provide students.”
Precise ideas of the form that the great books program would have taken were never solidified, members of the great books committee said, and concerns about funding and personnel only complicated discussions.
When Harris relayed news of the delay, the committee had not finalized the preferred format, let alone written a proposal, Armitage said. The only thing that was decided, he said, was that the great books courses would count toward some of the Gen Ed categories—perhaps two, possibly four of them.
Though planning had not progressed to particularly detailed stages when news of funding problems became official, committee members acknowledged that models under consideration emphasized small seminar-style discussions.
But even that would have posed complications. Professors said that it would be costly to teach individual seminars to a capped number of students in a full-fledged great books program—especially since Harvard has slowed down hiring, and any Gen Ed class would take professors’ time away from teaching department classes.
“There are so many things already sucking away faculty time from teaching in their home departments,” said history lecturer Adam G. Beaver, who is also the department’s assistant director of undergraduate studies and said that he would strongly favor the creation of a great books program. “Great books would be another thing.”
Some professors say that it would be key for professors—not postdocs and graduate students—to be the ones who would teach such courses.
“In our department, we are careful about who teaches in the sub-fields, and I think great books deserves no less than that,” said government professor Dennis F. Thompson, who added that he would not want to see “amateur teaching,” which would “degrade” the enterprise.
But according to Armitage, the committee had not eliminated the idea of including graduate students and postdocs in a teaching capacity—especially since it is a common concern that there might not be enough professors to accommodate student demand. Other proposals to alleviate the personnel shortage included making great books seminars application-only to control the size of the program.
But for now, Harvard will not be implementing the program in any form—indeed, next year it will also lose one of the only courses at the College that explicitly advertises itself as a great books class.
Armenian Studies Professor James R. Russell first submitted a Gen Ed course proposal for his Freshman Seminar 39k: “Literature Humanities: The Foundation Texts of the West,” in November, only to find out this month that the course, founded on a rigorous sequence of canonical texts, had been rejected.
The cited reason, Russell said, was that there was no coherent theme linking the course texts together—a complaint that he said he found unconvincing.
“I don’t even think that was a serious reason,” he said of the Gen Ed committee’s justification for rejecting the proposal. “It sounded like double-talk. And you know what? Fine.”
Russell said in a phone interview from Israel, where is now on sabbatical, that he is now no longer planning on teaching the course as a freshman seminar—nor is he planning to teach any Gen Ed classes, House seminars, or freshman seminars. From now on, he said, he will simply teach Armenian studies.
The Gen Ed committee rejected the course because they did not believe it belonged in the new curriculum, according to Philosophy professor Edward J. Hall, who serves on both the Gen Ed committee and the subcommittee that reviews course proposals in the humanities.
“The content of the proposal was not presented in a way which made it anywhere near clear enough how this fit into the guiding idea behind General Education,” he said.
When the Gen Ed committee rejects course proposals, Hall added, it is not to say that it is a bad class. He said that Russell’s course looked like “a fantastic course of a certain kind”—but not a Gen Ed course.
Present and former students in Russell’s freshman seminar expressed disappointment at the course’s rejection.
“I find it deeply unfair in all respects not only to Prof. Russell, but also to his students—to all of us,” said David Zuluaga ’12, who took the first half of the freshman seminar before Russell left for Israel.
Abigail R. Fradkin ’09, who took Russell’s freshman seminar the first time that it was offered, said that the great books contain an element that speaks to human beings at a fundamental, arguably even universal level.
She added that although students who come to Harvard seeking to do highly specialized work should have that opportunity, students who want a broader educational experience should not be ignored.
But not all students at Harvard are in favor of the great books.
“I don’t think Harvard has a huge need for that sort of course right now,” said Classics concentrator Paul T. Mumma ’09. “If you want to find coursework on the great books, you can find that—it’s just up to the individual to find it.”
Christopher Catizone ’06, who is currently a Harvard Law School student and tutor in Dunster House, said that a great books program would provide Harvard with an enriching unifying experience. He wrote an essay for the student essay collection on Gen Ed that was published in 2005, which made a rare case for the great books during the curricular review.
Catizone said that after students come to college from the “narrow societies” where they’ve grown up—whether in Manhattan or Nebraska—it is the beauty of a college education to give students’ the opportunity to cast off their past assumptions about the world, find a shared language, and flourish as human beings expanding their souls.
For now, that dream will have to wait.
—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Alex M. McLeese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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