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Till the Stars in the Firmament Die: Harvard’s Alma Mater and the Making of a Trade School

Last week, one of Harvard’s numerous high-level committees released another report. For those who habitually delete emails from president@harvard.edu, the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging came out with final recommendations. Snappily entitled “Pursuing Excellence on a Foundation of Inclusion,” the report consists of almost 80 brightly colored pages and contains eight recommendations. One of those eight, which has attracted notable media attention, changes the school’s alma mater. Its last lines will now read, “Be the herald of Light, and the bearer of Love, Till the stars in the firmament die.” (The latter part replaces “Till the stock of the Puritans die.”)

University President Drew G. Faust proudly asserts this new line will recognize “that the pursuit of truth and knowledge belongs to everyone at Harvard, from all backgrounds and beliefs.” Perhaps. And perhaps seven words in an obscure song do not merit much attention. But I fear the change underscores something else about “the pursuit of truth and knowledge” at the College: Even as Faust runs from Aspen to Davos promoting the importance of the liberal arts, that pursuit is increasingly concentrated in the pure and applied sciences, rather than in the humanities and social sciences. This lyric change, replacing a historical line with a scientific one, seems to ratify that shift.

I mean concentrated literally, since concentrator numbers reflect this disturbing shift. I am not trying to launch an attack against postmodernism and political correctness in academia in and of itself, and those interested in such fare can easily find it. Yet as the scholarship of the humanities and social sciences has become more postmodern, more politically correct, and, yes, more centered on issues of inclusion and belonging, the pure and applied sciences overwhelmingly have not. In response, my peers have voted with their feet. From 2008 to 2016, English, History, and Government departments have seen their number of concentrators decline from 236 to 144, 231 to 146, and 477 to 333 respectively. Applied Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science have meanwhile seen surges from 101 to 279, 17 to 163, and 86 to 363, respectively. This cannot merely be due to rising interest in science and technology, as psychology, a humanistic department that still focuses on method over values, has seen concentrator numbers hold steady.

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Diminishing interest in the History Department especially stings, since it is not only Faust’s department but also my own. This spring, 253 undergraduates are slogging through Computer Science 124: “Data Structures and Algorithms.” Meanwhile, the most popular History class has 83 enrollees. No other History offering enrolls over 50. Our poor enrollment cannot be because of an underlying disinterest in the liberal arts. Foundational and mainstream liberal arts courses from ER18: “Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory” to Government 1510: “American Constitutional Law” to Economics 1017: “A Libertarian Perspective on Economic and Social Policy” pack lecture halls with hundreds. Likewise, history’s most popular classes this year dealt with the conventional topics of American capitalism and the Vietnam War. And enrollment in my department pales in comparison not only to other departments, but also (say it softly) to the history department at Yale. This spring, five Yale history courses had over 100 students planning to enroll. Last fall, 176 students attended Paul M. Kennedy’s “Military History of the West Since 1500.” Harvard offers no similarly broad course and no Cold War survey course. Instead, we have “Cold War in the Global South.” Meanwhile, History 1046: “Islamicate Societies to 1500” “addresses the topics of gender and religious minorities in Islamicate societies,” in a lecture with just six undergraduate enrollees. As the humanistic departments have focused increasing attention on ensuring everyone feels included and studied in their syllabi, they have seemingly cared less about whether undergraduates as a whole actually want their new offerings. Meanwhile, the University has appointed excellent historians of traditional power politics in recent years—at the Business and Kennedy Schools.

I value diversity and inclusion, as well as all quality scholarship (including on gender and religious minorities). I am not the enemy here. Empty classrooms are. The fact is that those departments which have prioritized diverse scholarship the most and have moved the furthest away from supposedly antiquated traditional subjects are bleeding undergraduates the fastest. By failing to provide foundational courses undergraduates want to take, they are only speeding the flow from CGIS and Emerson Hall to the shiny new Allston campus. Correlation may not always mean causation. But the laudable push for inclusion and the lamentable decline of the most inclusive departments are perversely linked. With a new president and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences incoming, we now have an opportunity to seriously address this phenomenon of bright flight.

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My nightmare is this: Instead of changing course, my department and those like it will double down. They will prioritize “envisioning new intellectual fields, new perspectives into existing fields, and new means of interacting with a dynamic and ever-changing student body,” as Faust advocates. FAS’s History Department will eagerly look to the $10 million committed to “new faculty hires who have the promise to make a profound impact on our belonging and inclusion efforts through their scholarship, teaching, backgrounds, and life experiences.” Meanwhile, the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will prioritize new faculty hires who have the promise to make a profound impact on the wider world. SEAS will use the $400 million from John A. Paulson to focus on biomedical engineering and artificial intelligence. The upshot, five or 10 years from now, could be humanistic departments that increasingly reflect our proclaimed values even as they teach fewer and fewer of our students. Nobody wins in that scenario, in which Harvard becomes a Vassar joined at the hip to an MIT.

I have no doubt that Harvard will remain an excellent institution to attend, get a banking job, and get out. And as a Jewish Cold War historian, I feel as little ownership over the distant stars as I do over Puritan stock. At Commencement just over a year from now, I will happily sing the alma mater’s new lines. I will do so next to my roommates, who study biology and computer science. Amidst the chorus I will look over at them, fearing that my liberal arts Harvard, inclusive and shrinking, may meet a lonely fate long before the stars in the firmament begin to flicker.

Philip O. Balson ’19 is a history concentrator in Dunster House.

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