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Harvard needs to create a Class Studies secondary field.
We already have an incredible list of courses offerings that take on the important issue of socioeconomic status. Think Sociology 1121: “Understanding Meritocracy,” African and African-American Studies 189Y: “Sources of Interracial Economic Inequality in the United States,” General Education 1159: “American Capitalism,” and Studies of Women, Gender & Sexuality 1469: “Luxury and Commodity Pleasures: Histories of Gender, Sex, and Racial Capitalism.” We have faculty committed to addressing issues of socioeconomic status, economic inequality, and capitalism. We have students interested in enrolling in the courses.
What we don’t have, however, is an infrastructure for students to identify socioeconomic status as a lens of inquiry that is intriguing and important to them in its own right. Often, a pathway into a designated curriculum is as important as the curriculum itself. The creation of a secondary would provide the pathway that the course offerings themselves cannot.
Class Studies could work much like the other standalone secondaries that Harvard has already created. Similar to how the new Translation Studies secondary is part of the Comparative Literature department, a Class Studies secondary could become part of a department such as Sociology or Anthropology.
What would the secondary actually look like? One of the requirements could be a foundational course in theory on socioeconomic status and capitalism (for example, reading Marx). Beyond that, the secondary could be based in courses already offered in various departments at Harvard. Following the model of Translation Studies and Educational Studies, the secondary could require three or four “electives” from a set of courses that faculty determine take on socioeconomic status as a central theme. There could be more specific requirements for those electives, such as a course that ties socioeconomic status in with issues of race or gender, or a course with a primarily historical methodology. The secondary could end with a “capstone” project, such as original research or a project in the local community.
Is Class Studies an established field of inquiry? Although I was unable to find any related program of study at any of Harvard’s peer schools, in academia more broadly, some scholars have created “Working-Class Studies,” a field meant to address the same issues of the lived experiences of socioeconomic status in a capitalist society. This interrogation of “how class shapes and is shaped by race, gender, ethnicity, and place,” as the book “New Working-Class Studies” describes the field’s mission, can extend beyond the working class. As Harvard students and future citizens of the world, we have a duty to understand how socioeconomic status, inequality, and capitalism have impacted the lives of so many.
The novelty of Class Studies would be invigorating to students, not limiting. Some of the most exciting intellectual experiences that Harvard has provided me are in some way new. For example, I’m taking a course that looks at the United States’ nuclear stockpile as an expression of imperialism through the lens of critical Indigenous Studies. Getting to look at a complex issue in the world from a new lens — getting to feel like a part of the creation of a body of knowledge rather than just absorbing it — is not only exciting, but could be formative for undergraduates who have little opportunity to combine various fields of studies in new ways.
Beyond the intellectual excitement that would originate from the creation of this secondary, it would also be personally meaningful to many students. Harvard’s student body might become more socioeconomically diverse, but it is still not at all representative of the country. According to a 2017 New York Times study, 67 percent of Harvard students come from families whose incomes are in the top 20 percent of the country. This leaves many lower-income students to wrestle with all the nuances that come with attending a wealthy school largely built for wealthy people. Outside of student-led groups designed for lower-income students, such as the First-Year Retreat and Experience and Primus, there are very few opportunities for Harvard students to grapple with the impact that socioeconomic status and capitalism have had on their own lives in an academic context. Giving students a foundation in the vocabulary, theory, and history of economic inequality could help them make better sense of their own experiences.
Harvard has the ability to determine what intellectual fields are elevated. Harvard has the ability to identify a line of inquiry that is important and timely — one that their own students would benefit from — and to put the resources behind it to demonstrate to the broader academic world why it matters.
Understanding socioeconomic status, economic inequality, and capitalism are integral to understanding the very fabric of our society. Harvard should acknowledge this through the creation of a Class Studies secondary field. The secondary would give students whose lived experiences have been especially affected by socioeconomic status an intellectual framework to understand those experiences. It would allow undergraduates to become part of something new in the intellectual world. And it would make a statement to higher education about the importance of this lens of inquiry. Isn’t that what Harvard is all about?
Orlee G.S. Marini-Rapoport ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Adams House.
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