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Next to maybe only Economics 10 and Computer Science 50, Humanities 10 is without a doubt one of Harvard College’s most iconic courses. A survey of classic works in literature, philosophy, and the arts, the intensive expository writing colloquium is known on campus for its substantial book-a-week workload, from “The Odyssey” to “The Federalist Papers”.
Recently, however, the course — often referred to as “Hum 10” — has come under fire for its long-standing heavy emphasis on white, Western authors. In response, Professor Louis Menand IV, the course leader, said Hum 10 simply asks instructors to teach two works about which they are passionate. He cites the structural constraints of Harvard’s lack of diversity in the humanities as the primary cause of the syllabus’s homogeneity.
Really, though? Hum 10 brands itself as “2500 years of essential works.” To make such a claim and then dismiss diversity criticism on the grounds that the course is no more than instructors teaching two books they fancy is disingenuous. One glance at the syllabus is all that is necessary to see that the works selected for this course are meant to represent the humanist canon — “The Iliad”, “Inferno”, “Hamlet”, the Bible. And even if this were merely a coincidence, which it is surely not, the course must accept its role — both in its great power and tremendous responsibilities — as an arbiter of what works might qualify as most “essential.”
For many students, Hum 10 serves as their introduction to the academic humanities. The course has gravitas, and its instructors can’t shy away from that. It’s not just Hum 10. Other survey courses, like Social Studies 10, must critically and actively take up the task of shaping the academic discourse through the young academics they train.
We understand the constraints that Menand mentioned, and we believe that the College needs to do more to diversify its faculty. We have been vocal supporters of an Ethnic Studies department, for example. But, given that Harvard already has a renowned African and African American Studies Department, it strains belief to say that there aren’t passionate and qualified professors to teach literature by black authors.
We also need to differentiate between the issue of racial and gender diversity and the issue of nonwestern exclusion. For example, W.E.B. Du Bois is black, but he still is wholly within the Western canon. Hum 10 and the College need to ensure that they deal with both.
Failing to include significant racial, gender, or regional diversity in a course like Hum 10 sends a message to freshmen, any friends who might see their high pile of course books, and the broader world that looks to Harvard as an arbiter of scholarly merit that these works are not as valuable — that these works do not deserve the status of “great.” The Hum 10 course instructors cannot do it all on their own, but they do not have to wait for the University to bring about meaningful change.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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