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Dissent: Departmental Restructuring Won’t Save — or Kill — the Humanities

By Saul I.M. Arnow and Tommy Barone, Crimson Opinion Writers
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

Stop us if you’ve heard this before: In America’s colleges, the humanities are under threat.

The reasons for this are unclear. Maybe it’s job-market pressures, real or imagined. Maybe it’s the unique character of the new crises today’s students confront. Maybe it’s a failure self-inflicted, an unwillingness to sweep off the cobwebs of an ornery old set of disciplines and step into the light of a new day.

Only one thing appears to us as sure: The fate of arts and letters does not turn on whether they be strewn across fifteen micro-departments or consolidated into five larger ones.

In focusing on administrative structure to evaluate Harvard’s plan for the humanities, the Board today largely ignores the question, far more essential, of how we might expand and adapt the humanities to engage a growing, changing world. Because we believe our peers’ opinion misses the forest for the trees — or more aptly, the library for the book — we dissent.

The majority’s focus on administrative structure diverts attention from the biggest threat to the humanities: low and declining interest, a problem which does not stop at Harvard’s gates. Most colleges, in America and beyond, have experienced similar declines in humanities enrollments. It strains reason that departmental structure, which we expect varies substantially from school to school, could meaningfully explain such a unanimous trend.

Whatever your particular causal story about the “end of the English major” — job pressures, changing interests, fresh exigencies — our peers’ chosen solution feels inadequate.

For sake of argument, we’re happy to grant that combining departments — as Arts and Humanities Dean Robin E. Kelsey proposed to do with several that study European language and literature — could reduce the ability of the consolidated departments’ constituent parts to secure funding, personnel, and influence.

But if the Board’s concern with mergers is administrative clout, the correct unit of analysis is not the individual department — it’s the humanities taken as a whole.

The consolidation of individual humanities departments will not determine whether the capital-H Humanities experience reductions in institutional support — Harvard’s commitment will. So long as that support, denominated in faculty and funding, stays the same, we’re substantially indifferent to what mergers may come.

Of course, there are other reasons to defend small departments — for example, to support the important scholarship conducted by academics in whose courses few undergraduates enroll.

Nevertheless, it strikes us that low and falling interest in the humanities surely represents the greatest existential threat to Harvard’s support for these scholars. The more we bolster interest in the humanities, the more we stave off deeper cuts to its funding and personnel.

And, truthfully, changes to the kinds of humanities research Harvard does resulting from such mergers might not hurt. If anything can be said to characterize academia, it’s inertia. Love it or hate it, the tenure system entrenches seniority, biasing the research portfolio of an institution toward the interests of academics trained decades ago rather than those who came up in our milieu.

Where fields once new and exciting have fallen behind the times, we find it fitting that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences should have the structural flexibility to usher in the fresh ideas of a new generation. Emerging fields like the digital humanities, often interdisciplinary, can refresh the humanities, equipping it to engage students with profoundly different dreams, interests, and anxieties than their peers a half-century prior. (Not to mention the new fields of yesteryear, like ethnic studies, regarding which Harvard remains behind the times.)

While fighting to retain their field’s best scholarship even when that isn’t its flashiest, the humanities faculty should have the courage to reject territoriality and consider honestly which new methods and modes of inquiry represent the path forward for the humanities.

Convinced that the longevity of Harvard humanities must take precedence over the longevity of its present departmental form, we hope the FAS does not allow questions of structure to elide more fundamental questions of substance.

We cannot step into the same stream twice. The future of the humanities won’t be found in its past.

Saul I.M. Arnow ’26, an Associate Editorial Editor, lives in Adams House. Tommy Barone ’25, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House.

Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

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