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Social Studies and Embracing Uncertainty

The Social Studies department is located in William James Hall.
The Social Studies department is located in William James Hall. By Helen Y. Wu
By Manuel A. Yepes, Crimson Opinion Writer
Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House.

The phrase “Social Studies” means many things to many people. For some, it evokes images of fourth graders memorizing capitals and singing the fifty states in order. At Harvard, however, Social Studies refers to one of the College’s most popular concentrations. What has led so many students to take Social Studies 10, the concentration’s sophomore tutorial with a reading list that spans Hobbes to Foucault? What do people really learn in this popular, but ill-defined program?

Founded in 1960, Social Studies was created to address two major concerns: first, that students were overspecialized, and second, that students were unable to focus on concrete social problems without being “academically coerced into a conventional departamental approach.”

To this end, six “founding fathers” from a variety of social science disciplines came together to create a concentration that permitted, according to the Social Studies website, “the crossing of departmental lines and the study of major social problems from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.”

Today, Social Studies is an interdisciplinary concentration that attempts to teach students how to study and solve social issues, allowing them to draw from offerings in History, Economics, Government, Sociology, and Anthropology to build a “focus field” around their distinct academic interests. In that sense, Social Studies mirrors the mission of many other departments. It differs, though, in not assuming that any one method has a monopoly on truth; rather, it allows the problem at hand to dictate the method.

So has it succeeded? Do students graduate from the program with a solid answer to a social issue of their choice, along with methods to solve more of these issues down the road?

Not exactly — but maybe that’s by design.

In my conversations with students in the concentration, and from my own personal experience as a Social Studies concentrator, I’ve come away with a picture of a program that teaches very few concrete lessons, but is lauded by its students as an intellectually formative experience.

What’s their takeaway? More than any method or skill, Social Studies teaches students to embrace uncertainty.

A ‘Permissive Uncertainty’

The crux of a Social Studies education lies in the concentration’s seminar-style tutorials, usually taken in students’ second and third years at the College. Of these, the sophomore tutorial, Social Studies 10, is the most foundational, serving as a starting point for all concentrators.

The original conception of the sophomore tutorial, according to Social Studies co-founder Barrington Moore in an April 1962 report on the then-nascent concentration, was that it should “introduce students to the main issues that still agitate social scientists and enable them to see how first-class minds have struggled over them.”

Many current students laud this historical survey. Saswato Ray ’25, a Social Studies concentrator, told me in an interview that Social Studies “gives you a good general overview of how exactly we started thinking.”

“Anyone who takes 10b can kind of understand how our perspectives on thinking about this stuff — like the political, social, economic stuff — it changed so much since Hobbes and Rousseau,” Ray said.

Yet this examination has its downsides: The effect of surveying the efforts of economists, political scientists, sociologists, and other theorists to solve social problems is often a recognition that their work rarely, if ever, produces satisfying answers.

Since the program’s conception, students and professors alike have arrived at this realization. One student from 1962 explained that the tutorial “had read a series of inadequate single factor explanations of war that convinced him any single factor explanation would not do.”

Sasha C. Hitachi-Kizziah ’25, a Social Studies concentrator, echoed this sentiment.

“You write an essay, and you’re kind of unsatisfied with the answer,” she told me. “Do I fully believe this? Do I fully understand it?”

The first generation of Social Studies students ran into the same problem many of us concentrators run into now: In Moore’s words from 1962, an “exaggerated expectation about what to hope for in the way of a grand synthesis” gives way to “a form of mild paralysis — or at least great uncertainty about what to do next — when the synthesis fails to put in an appearance.”

As they progress through Social Studies 10, though, students become more comfortable with the uncertainty. They embrace it, asking themselves what other assumptions they may have taken for granted.

At first, Moore recounted in his 1962 report, some students “were mildly disturbed at first by what struck them as a permissive uncertainty about the character of their task” — but then embraced it.

Students today have arrived at the same conclusion.

“The stuff that I’ve mostly learned from 10b was to question things in different ways, from different angles — tear stuff apart, basically, and question what we hold as normative,” Ray told me.

What this spirit of questioning leads to is not merely an unbridled skepticism of all previous attempts to explain social phenomena. Instead, the product is a deeper examination of social science research as a whole.

In the first couple of years of Social Studies, tutorial leader Joseph Berliner arrived at the same conclusion.

“The students have now, I think, come to accept as a fit subject of discussion not the explanation of a particular social phenomenon but the question of how one can identify a satisfactory explanation of anything when he sees one,” he wrote in a letter to Economics professor and Social Studies co-founder Alexander Gerschenkron in the early 1960s.

The result is a critical examination into the practice of inquiry. Instead of simply asking what we can know, Social Studies also asks how we can know.

Uncertainty in the Curriculum

The faculty leading Social Studies’ development as a concentration have applied the same spirit of uncertainty to the construction of the curriculum. Over the past sixty-three years, faculty have debated the proper way to teach students how to solve social problems. Throughout this whole process, they’ve accepted the fact that they will never arrive at an acceptable answer. Instead, they embrace a process of ongoing experimentation.

Brandon Terry, one of the current course heads of Social Studies 10b, told me that the sophomore tutorial “takes its mission from the broader charge of the program.” The authors on the syllabus, he said, “are not only a model of this kind of inquiry, they’re not only an introduction into the ongoing conversation of how to study particular problems, but they also teach you how to ask the really big questions.”

So what authors can best teach students how to ask the big questions? That’s still not quite clear. After half a century of trial and error, the syllabus — and the course staff responsible for curating it — have failed to settle on a concrete answer.

Throughout the first couple of decades of Social Studies’s existence, instructors’ main worry was methodological, of how to best organize thinkers and introduce students to the “spirit of questioning.”

“It is suggested that a pairing of Hume and Mill would not violate chronology seriously and would give added ‘bite’ to the methodological problems of the social sciences,” reads one 1962 proposed revision of the course. Another suggested syllabus change from 1968 aimed to ensure that the course “proceed to abstract methodological issues only after the students have completed important studies which raise and illustrate the issues.”

By the turn of the 21st century, though, as students became comfortable with the program’s critical mission, suggested reforms aimed to challenge what exactly was critiqued. Social Studies concentrators lamented the concentration of white, European, and heterosexual authors. Faculty members likewise began to recognize the importance of issues like gender and race that had not been subjected to the same critical study as other topics.

“It’s really about the kinds of questions and theoretical approaches that are possible if you include certain voices,” Terry told me. “It is a dead end trying to theorize the origins of modern race-making and the possible range of responses from oppressed people to the racial order if you don’t read DuBois.”

“To me it’s about expanding the range of problems to fit the things that are most pressing in our time,” he added later.

My point here is not to focus attention solely on a specific critique of the syllabus. It’s to make clear the constant changes the program undergoes. Over more than sixty years, the Committee has not yet arrived at an answer to how to best teach students how to know.

We shouldn’t be surprised at that, though. Within each tutorial, students would be hard pressed to find a concrete answer to why countries democratize, or how people conceive of their identities. The same critical and permissively uncertain approach used in the classroom is reflected in the program’s development as a whole.

In this vein, Terry said that he thinks of the Social Studies 10 syllabus as “an ongoing experimentation,” echoing the words of Social Studies co-founder Alexander Gerschenkron calling the program “an exciting experiment.”

Gerschenkron continued that “it should thrive on innovation, and it would be a pity if the feeling should prevail that the period of experimentation was all over.”

That is Social Studies’ most important lesson, one that can be integrated into all parts of life. What the program has embraced, both on a micro and macro level, is uncertainty, an eager acceptance of the limits of our ability to answer questions, and a motivation to continue asking those questions all the same.

On a personal level, that’s a difficult reality to acknowledge. We crave certainty, and even if we’ve reluctantly accepted some issues, like the existence of God, as existing outside the limits of our reason, our Enlightenment-era internal drive pushes us to search for simple answers to the complexity of the world around us. It seems that there’s only two options: Find the truth, or live by blindly holding on to whatever grounding we can find. The futility of the first often leads us to accept the second.

Yet there’s a third option: Find motivation in the process itself. Retain hope in the possibility that, even if you as an individual may never write an essay you’re fully content with, your role within a larger context is a productive one. Few people, if any, have ever found the truth. That doesn’t mean that it’s all been for naught, though. Ask questions, embrace uncertainty, and continue the struggle.

Manuel A. Yepes ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Cabot House.

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