In Defense of Social Studies

To the editors:

I write to respond to Sabrina Lee’s impassioned criticism of the Social Studies 10 syllabus (“The Social Studies Ideology”, Sabrina G. Lee, Feb. 10, 2010). Lee has raised important concerns, but her argument is misinformed and insufficiently argued. As I see it, she has made two criticisms. First, she claims that Social Studies 10 has rejected “including gender theory or postcolonial theory on the course syllabus.” This is factually incorrect. Her second criticism is that by including only “white, European, heterosexual male theorists,” Social Studies is perpetuating an “ideology that we—all Harvard students—should not accept.” This she never proves.

On the facts, Lee is just wrong. With regard to feminism, students read John Stuart Mill’s “Subjection of Women,” and spend a whole week on Simone de Beauvoir’s “Second Sex.” As for post-colonial and race theory, students spend a week on Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth.” In the area of sex and gender theory, students not only read Freud, but spend two weeks on Michel Foucault, including a week on his “History of Sexuality.” Aside from their virtues as social theories, the Beauvoir, Fanon, and Foucault texts are foundational in feminism, post-colonial studies, and theories of sexuality respectively. Given the time limitations of the course and the need to choose works of the greatest substance, these texts are appropriately chosen. Moreover, discussions of other social theorists frequently include discussions of family structure, imperialism, and race. For instance, a number of students in my tutorial this year wrote papers comparing Mill’s and Tocqueville’s different views on gender and examining how these views were related to broader social theoretic positions.

Lee’s more serious criticism is that Social Studies perpetuates an ideology that implies “capitalism as an institution is worthy of criticism, but sexism [or racism, imperialism, etc…] is not.” I cannot see how Social Studies gives this impression by the sheer design of its syllabus, nor would an attentive listener to the lectures ever get this impression. For one thing, including Fanon and Beauvoir clearly demonstrates that Social Studies takes the study of gender, race, and imperialism as seriously as it takes all other important topics. More to the point, Social Studies is quite explicitly taught at a high level of abstraction because the purpose is to show how social theories are applicable to all kinds of social phenomena. The theories are not straightforwardly linked to the gender, class, or ethnicity of their creators. For example, when reading Marx, students learn about how ideologies sometimes take the form of statements that appear universal, but hide interests or points of view. Anyone can use this idea to perform an ideology critique of ideas or points of view that present themselves as universal. Isn’t Lee’s editorial an attempt at an ideology critique of the Social Studies curriculum? Is Lee, by using this technique, unwittingly reproducing the straight male perspective of Karl Marx, or is she just thinking for herself?

A further problem is that Lee seems to believe that Social Studies tells or should tell its students what to think. She does not say students ought to learn different approaches to the study of social phenomena, but rather that they ought to learn to criticize not just capitalism but sexism, racism, etc… That is dogmatism, not education or critical thinking. Social Studies exposes students to many different approaches and views –Marx and Smith, Freud and Foucault, Mill and Beauvoir. Indeed, students read not just critics of, say, imperialism and capitalism, but also its defenders (i.e., Mill and Hayek.) Social Studies presents its students with conflicting theoretical approaches amongst which they must choose. Regardless of whether they find psychoanalytic, post-structuralist, Marxist, or Weberian theory more compelling, all students are welcome in Social Studies.

It is an historical injustice that a privileged group of mostly straight, white men were granted the education and opportunity to create social theory, but this is why they dominate any survey of classic social theory. Social Studies is not responsible for that historical fact. And one would be hard pressed even to make sense of what is problematic about that history without some of the tools of social theory. The great virtue of social theory is its self-reflective character. That is one of the reasons these theories can be used to criticize positions that their originators might have held, and why the theories are not so tightly bound to the sexual orientations and class positions of their authors as Lee suggests. In fact, much post-colonial and gender theory is an application of general social theories to new or historically ignored issues. While I appreciate the spirit with which Lee’s editorial is written, I think she has picked the wrong target and used the wrong arguments. Making history is perhaps a better use of these political energies than remaking the imperfect, but unjustly maligned, Social Studies syllabus.


Cambridge, MA

Feb. 10, 2010

Alex Gourevitch ’01 is a Social Studies graduate, and is now a tutor in Social Studies 10.