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When a friend told me that Harvard’s course catalog does not contain a single course whose description references Winston Churchill, I couldn’t believe him. How could one of the primary actors in the second world war — arguably the greatest politician of the previous century — not merit a single mention in any Harvard course description? Yet when I entered “Churchill” into the course catalog search function, Winston Churchill did not surface once. Appalled, I tried “Napoleon.” Nothing. The only mention of Stalin was a course that references the “Stalin era.” “Dickens” and “Hardy” had no references at all.
I’d argue that these phrases — all of which can be found in the 2008 course catalog — are missing because Harvard’s courses have largely shifted to focus on progressive ideas. The transition is partly a long overdue correction of academia’s focus on white male authors and historical figures. Yet the attempt to study underrepresented groups has been accompanied by an abundance of left-wing scholarship, without a corresponding focus on conservative ideas.
Today, Harvard abounds with classes that develop the intellectual merit behind the political left’s ideology, including the theory of intersectional politics, progressive views on race and gender, and an approach to world history that centers on the conflict between oppressors and victims. Students can choose from a plethora of classes on social issues, including “Race and Ethnicity in the United States,” “Queer Theory,” or “Decolonizing Global Health” to understand the ideas driving liberal politics today. However, a similar treatment of the ideology underpinning conservative ideas, like the value of tradition and the importance of small government, is conspicuously missing from Harvard’s course offerings.
Take the Women, Gender, and Sexuality department, which the Student Handbook explains is based on the hotly contested premise that “gender and sexuality are fundamental categories of social organization and power that are inseparable from race, ethnicity, class, nationality, and other categories of difference.” The idea that an entire Harvard department would similarly embrace a highly-disputed belief in the right-wing end of the political or cultural spectrum is laughable.
The politicization of academia in recent years is not inherently bad. But when universities do not balance classes promoting progressive ideas with ones embracing conservative biases, liberal students become complacent with their beliefs, conservative thought becomes exiled to think tanks that lack the opportunity to teach students, and political discourse suffers.
Harvard’s mission statement claims the school strives to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” When the University provides students courses that affirm one political perspective while ignoring others, they forsake their purpose. While it’s a welcome, long-overdue development to include non-white, non-cisgender, and non-male voices that have traditionally been ignored, it’s a mistake to do so at the expense of examining beliefs stimulating conservative politics. The two are not incompatible: Let’s not allow needed reforms to introduce novel problems.
Beyond the imbalance plaguing Harvard’s courses, graduation requirements worsen the effects of the asymmetry. Harvard’s current curriculum, which affords students tremendous freedom in determining which classes to take, allows progressive students to coast through four years of their education at Harvard enrolling in classes that affirm their beliefs without prompting them to rethink their principles. Conservative students are similarly unlikely to seek out new perspectives, and will also enroll in classes that do not challenge their beliefs — they just have a smaller selection from which to choose. The curriculum serves no one because it never forces students to seriously confront new ideas.
The one-sided nature of teaching at Harvard and in academia generally is also harmful to our national political discourse. Conservative thinkers have been relegated to think tanks like the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute, where they have less influence on young students. As a result, liberal students are less likely to understand conservative perspectives and students inclined towards right-wing ideologies may have a shallower understanding of their political beliefs than their liberal peers.
If Harvard seeks to educate the citizen-leaders of our society, it must contend with a simple, basic, irrefutable fact: Although conservative people are a minority at Harvard, they are the plurality in America, and depriving the next generation of conservative perspectives will only worsen political dialogue. Educating our future citizen-leaders means educating students in both leftist and conservative world views: Students on both sides of the political spectrum will leave Harvard and become leaders in our country and around the globe. Given that many American lawmakers from both parties once studied at this school, Harvard should provide an education that serves our future leaders regardless of political orientation.
To properly educate its students, Harvard should offer more courses that apply a conservative lens to history and literature in the same vein that some classes explore these areas through a progressive framework. It should also redesign its graduation requirements to ensure that each student is forced to take classes with both openly progressive and conservative biases in addition to courses that aim for objectivity. Forcing students to take courses that challenge their beliefs will simultaneously encourage individuals to rethink and nuance their opinions, while also introducing them to foreign ideologies they have not yet considered. In an era of rampant polarization, Harvard should foster mutual understanding between students of various ideologies in the classroom.
Being an educated person today means understanding the salient political movements that are animating contemporary debate. Harvard’s task ahead involves creating new classes and altering the College’s graduation requirements to ensure students enroll in classes that acquaint them with both liberal and conservative ideas. Although these reforms will require much time and energy, this issue is too important to ignore: The blinkered liberal hold on Harvard’s academics must be relaxed if the school hopes to promote an honest and open discussion of ideas.
Our future citizen leaders are here — it is now time to begin educating them.
Jacob M. Miller ’25 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Lowell House. His column “Diary from an Echo Chamber” appears on alternate Thursdays.
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