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The English Department’s recent proposal to add a diversity requirement for concentrators is a bold and laudable move. In the midst of an ongoing discussion regarding diversity in thought and how best to emphasize it at the College, the proposal is certainly a welcome shift and we hope that other departments also consider this important precedent.
If approved next week by the Committee on Undergraduate Educational Policy, the motion submitted by the English faculty would go into effect for the Class of 2020. It would require future English concentrators to enroll in a course involving writers “marginalized for historical reasons.” The criteria for “marginalization” include authors writing about issues such as “racism, patriarchy, and heteronormativity,” and focusing on courses with ethnic or women authors, according to the English Department Chair James Simpson.
This proposal is commendable and reflects extensive discussion that has taken place about measures to increase diversity in coursework. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the department ensure that the classes that satisfy the new requirement truly reflect historically marginalized communities in the United States or abroad, especially since Harvard has had difficulties offering these types of courses in the past. We hope that the diversity requirement will create greater demand and incentive for these types of classes to be offered to students.
More broadly, we call for all applicable academic departments—namely those in the humanities and social sciences—to follow suit by diversifying their syllabi and course options, moving away from the typical canon of Western male authors that these departments tend to highlight and emphasize. This shift would allow for reflection on the ideas that these diverse voices add to the ongoing conversations in disciplines such as political and social theory.
To build on top of these goals, every Harvard student ought to consider taking courses on non-Western authors and schools of thought at some point during their four years here. It is all too easy to take courses at the College that focus entirely on Western thought. One way to achieve this would be for Harvard to add a General Education requirement on diversity of study, focusing on ideas not traditionally a part of the Western canon. These new Gen Ed courses would highlight marginalized communities whose voices have been barely considered or explored, providing Harvard students with the tools to consider worlds vastly different from their own.
Historical and cultural diversity continues to be a salient issue for many at the College, as various fields of student life and academics have discussed the best way to be inclusive and welcoming to all. Expanding course choices and requirements to reflect the pluralism that exists in the student body is a powerful impetus that will expose Harvard students to new ideas that may previously have not been a focus. It is reassuring that the English Department’s proposal indicates an understanding and acceptance of this idea.
We urge the Committee on Undergraduate Educational Policy to pass the English Department’s motion at their meeting next week. It will mark an ongoing transformation and empower future classes of students who come through Harvard to gain exposure to authors whom they might never have encountered or considered in novel educational contexts.
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