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A few months ago, a select group of students, faculty, and administrators from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences convened in the Science and Engineering Complex to discuss a proposal that could radically transform the humanities at Harvard.
The proposal includes ideas for several substantial changes, among them the establishment of two new concentrations: Ethnicity, Indigeneity and Migration and Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. The proposed LLC concentration would consolidate concentrations in Germanic Languages and Literatures, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Slavic Languages and Literatures as well as the secondary in Celtic Languages and Literatures.
Arts and Humanities Dean Robin E. Kelsey argues that this proposal comes from the way the four fields are “united by the commonality of their declared aspiration: the study of language and literature” and ultimately hopes that it will create more interdisciplinary pathways within the humanities.
We disagree. This proposal poses a serious threat to the study of humanities at Harvard.
By merging multiple humanities concentrations, the committee’s proposal overlooks small humanities departments rather than supporting them. It is also a dangerous first step that could lead to further mergers and abolition of academic departments altogether.
Having separate departments for different fields is crucial to provide faculty with targeted support. Furthermore, the existence of specialized degrees for different languages allows students to be experts in their areas of study and have a tight-knit community. It also allows the emergence of meaningfully unique cultures in these concentrations, which could come to an end with the proposed merger.
Keeping these concentrations separate is also a symbolic gesture towards showing that these fields are worthy areas of study. The recognition and resources that come with smaller focus areas will clarify that Harvard supports these departments and their unique cultures. Faculty who specialize in areas that intersect with multiple departments can be cross-listed — a practice that maintains distinctions between fields while encouraging interdisciplinary studies.
While there is an obvious disparity between the number of concentrations focused on Western and non-Western languages and cultures, the solution is not to reduce the number of ways students can study Western culture; it is to increase the number of ways in which they can study non-Western studies.
The proposal of an Ethnicity Indigeneity and Migration concentration is a welcome step. Additionally, departments like Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and East Asian Studies — overly broad divisions that encompass varied languages and cultures — deserve to be broken down into smaller departments.
While some administrators may feel inclined to merge small departments based on their size — a line of reasoning that assumes Harvard should support scholars from popular areas of study — we urge the school not to play this “numbers game” and instead make decisions about what fields deserve departments based on the merits.
Given the distinct literary and cultural traditions that emerged in Europe — distinctions that differentiate Slavic studies from Germanic works and Romance languages from Celtic studies — we support keeping these departments separate, and the concentrations they confer separate as well.
Harvard is the de facto defender of higher education, a point that was made clear during President Claudine Gay’s inauguration when she mentioned Americans’ diminishing confidence in college. Part of restoring that confidence means defending the value of the scholarship our universities produce. Giving up on the humanities is certainly not the solution; instead we should be at the forefront of defending them, making sure their funding doesn’t diminish and explaining why their study is valuable.
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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