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The Social Studies Ideology

We need more than the white male perspective

By Sabrina G. Lee

If Tocqueville had been born a black woman, what would she have said about America? Social studies concentrators will never know. Those who have taken the concentration’s much-feared introductory social theory course, Social Studies 10, know that the syllabus is comprised almost exclusively of white, European, heterosexual male theorists. The strikingly homogenous syllabus speaks to the existence of a social studies ideology that we—all Harvard students—should not accept.

A major argument against including more female and nonwhite writers on the Social Studies 10 syllabus calls attention to the course description’s stated mission. Social Studies 10 is, according to the course description, a study of classic texts; as such, it bears no responsibility to diversify and perhaps shouldn’t. This argument, however, is complicated by the fact that Social Studies 10 is one of the only courses required of all concentrators and thus binds together an otherwise loosely-defined humanities concentration.

Although its stated mission may be to introduce students to classic social theory texts, Social Studies 10’s academic function is to equip students with the tools the department deems absolutely necessary to understanding one’s focus field—an interdisciplinary specialty area about which concentrators ultimately write their theses. Social studies concentrators are required to read Hayek, Polanyi and Marx in Social Studies 10 because exposure to major economic theories is considered necessary to confront issues relevant to all concentrators’ theses and focus fields. But, by not including gender theory or postcolonial theory on the course syllabus, the department communicates that these approaches are not essential to understanding the same topics.

Embedded in these highly subjective decisions exists a social studies ideology. Because Social Studies 10 provides concentrators with a common set of tools for confronting social issues and phenomena, not including gender theorists or postcolonial theorists (many of whom are female and/or nonwhite) is an implicit statement about how the department understands and encourages its students to understand these topics. By including Marx but not including feminists on the syllabus, the department communicates that capitalism is an institution worthy of criticism, but sexism is not. Furthermore, allowing concentrators to read Hegel, Tocqueville and Polanyi, to name a few, without providing sociological criticisms of their work gives credence to their views, many of which are characterized by sexist, racist and imperialist beliefs.

The social studies department’s ideology is one that we cannot accept. An understanding of social issues that does not pass through the lens of gender theory, post-colonialism, or theories of racial oppression is an understanding that is not academically rigorous. The more pressing issue, however, is justice; it is unjust to ignore these perspectives. The classic texts of social theory have shaped our understanding of power and humanity up to the present, and it is clear that this understanding must in many ways change. If we are serious about confronting the most pressing contemporary issues, we must move beyond the traditional canon of social theory and engage in new ways of thinking about inequality and injustice.

Sabrina G. Lee ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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