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When choosing classes for the upcoming academic year, Harvard students will notice a long-awaited addition to the course catalog. For the first time in the University’s storied history, Filipino — the standardized form of Tagalog, currently the fourth most spoken primary language in the United States — will appear as a course offering.
Last week, the Department of South Asian Studies announced that it will hire three preceptors to teach Filipino, Bahasa Indonesian, and Thai; Harvard already offers the latter two in a tutorial format. We are grateful for this effort to institutionalize the study of Southeast Asian languages, and we specifically thank students from the Harvard Philippine Forum and affiliates of the Asia Center for their years-long advocacy around course offerings, without which it is highly unlikely that the University would have ever taken action.
With thousands of languages and dialects employed daily around the globe, it is unreasonable to expect Harvard to offer instruction in all the world’s tongues. Still, while there is no perfect framework to determine exactly which languages should be taught, we do expect the University to follow basic guidelines when making such decisions — particularly because other educational institutions look to Harvard as a model when deciding what vernaculars are worthy of study.
Both demonstrated student interest and national popularity of a language should be taken into account when determining which languages to offer; Filipino indisputably meets both these criteria. However, this isn’t a new development, as decades of student advocates — and nearly two million current Tagalog speakers in the United States — can attest.
Considering that the value of learning obscure, archaic, or even dead languages has never been questioned by the University, we find it damning that students were faced with silence for years as they lobbied Harvard to offer a single course in one of the most commonly-spoken tongues in the nation. A commitment to veritas in language learning, it seems, was restricted to the decaying domain of the term’s provenance rather than extending to the living, breathing tongues of today.
Recognizing this egregious gap in Harvard’s curricular offerings, the addition of Filipino to the course catalog should be paired with proactive efforts by the University to establish a Southeast Asian Studies department and to hire more professors that focus on the region across departments. Currently, there is only one professor in the History Department whose field of specialization is South Asian and Southeast Asian history. If Harvard intends to maintain its position as a leading research institution with premier, cutting-edge scholarship on emerging global issues, it must further expand its offerings on this historically rich and increasingly strategic area of the world, especially given Yale and Princeton’s already-existing curricula dedicated to the region.
And while we enthusiastically welcome scholars of the region within the nascent field of Ethnic Studies, we also hope that Harvard does not simply lump all academic work on historically-underrepresented fields into this one program. Rather, a dedicated Southeast Asian Studies department, in addition to more scholarship within existing fields, is necessary to ensure that all cultures and histories receive adequate engagement, funding, and resources.
Although the offering of Filipino may be particularly meaningful to students with heritage connections to the Philippines, we urge students with no prior knowledge of the language to also consider enrolling this upcoming academic year. The “transformative experience” that Harvard promises is only possible when we diversify our awareness of available knowledge by engaging with a kaleidoscope of perspectives — something which foreign language study is uniquely equipped to enable.
As Harvard turns over a new page in its centuries-long history, we hope the momentum of the offering of Filipino will push the University to redress its enduring, conspicuous lack of curricular coverage for an entire region of the globe. Even as we remain unsatisfied with Harvard’s course catalog, however, we applaud vocal students, dedicated faculty, and visionary staff for pushing the University to rearticulate its commitment to Veritas in an entirely new tongue. To them, we say: salamat.
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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