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Columns

A More Rigorous Humanities

By Spencer W. Glassman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.

The humanities are easy. Or so goes the cant of most Harvard students. And who can argue with them? One can reasonably be worried about failing an organic chemistry exam, but such a feat would be almost commendable on an English essay. Our STEM classes expect a lot more out of our students than our humanities classes do because there are tangible things that any student who completes Stat 110 or Physics 16 must know. The humanities are not inherently easier. In fact, they are far from it; after all, a brilliant philosopher is much rarer than a math genius.

Humanities courses need to challenge their students to know the material thoroughly and to have considered its significance deeply. In other words, they need to be more rigorous.

It is all too common to sit through a section discussion on the weekly reading where at most 25 percent of students have actually done the reading. Why should they? If they don’t turn in their Math problem set, they will fail. On the other hand, if they don’t do the reading, their teaching fellow won’t hound them with questions to prove that; it won’t even affect their grade. When the time comes they can glance through one of the books and write an essay that is good enough, by virtue of their natural intelligence, to earn an A-, meanwhile they’ve not learned anything the whole semester. Such a story must become foreign to the experience of any Harvard student.

There is ample room for improvement in the rigor of humanities courses. On the most basic level, professors and teaching fellows must assure that students actually know the material. If a student demonstrates a negligent attitude to completing reading assignments that student should see a change to his or her grade. At the same time, students who want to receive high marks should know more than the vague picture of what happened but should be required to have considered the reading deeply.

The undemanding character of many humanities classes stems from a pedagogical aversion to factual knowledge. It is few and far between that students in a literature class actually have to memorize verse, and if they do, it may be only a few lines. The internet has made many people feel as though they do not actually have to know historical facts, for they are so accessible to them. However, without poems and historical references festering in their minds, these facts are of no use. The internet’s resources allow us to draw connections, to make allusions or analogies with greater ease, but it is impossible to be reminded of something and perceive its relevance when it only exists on our smartphones. Information held only by our computers isn’t knowledge. Facts become knowledge and effectual only once they are possessed by people.

Students are dissuaded from concentrating in the humanities because it is too difficult to demonstrate one’s talent. One must feel challenged to believe what they’re doing is worthwhile. Though one may force oneself to take up the burden of the humanities by spending hours contemplating assigned philosophy readings or considering how primary sources in a history class relate to the themes apparent from the textbook, no student is truly forced to do this. Even so, effort seems to be enough to gain the approbation of the teaching staff. If Harvard wants to produce alumni who will make significant contributions to thought, it ought to start asking more of its students. It is extremely difficult to actually understand Plato, Milton, or Polybius, but far easier to make decently well-argued assertions about them.

The future of rigor is not hopeful. Princeton’s recent dismissal of a Greek or Latin requirement to receive a degree in the Classics is highly concerning. Reading translations is always a hindrance to true appreciation of a text, and learning a language is always an exercise in working hard to develop fluency. Receiving a Classics degree without fluency in these languages is akin to receiving a Math degree without knowing basic calculus. The Math department doing such a thing would be unthinkable. So why is it done in the humanities?

Consider high school art class. Art, not being as academic as the other subjects, or so we were told, cannot expect students to be expert painters or masterful actors. Therefore, As are given to any student who tries hard. Does art not require just as much natural skill as any other subject? The equivalent skill in science is just more closely tied to traditional markings of intelligence like IQ, which, according to those who want Harvard to only admit those with the best of test scores, is some sort of magical superiority index. Of course, IQ is no more valuable than being an outstanding ceramicist, and we should treat both competencies equally. As an awful artist, I should not have received a good grade in high school art class. Students should not expect to get As in subjects in which they are not particularly gifted, and very few of us are gifted in many things. A skilled writer may rightly fail a high-level math class, but it would be exceedingly rare for the reverse to happen.

Ultimately, we are scared of ranking anything which isn’t objective. Math has right and wrong answers, so a teaching fellow could never give an A to a student who wrote that 2+2=5. A math class also has a more straightforward set of information that must be known by the student. Selecting which interpretation of Augustine is correct or what scenes from “The Tempest” a student should have remembered is subjective.

Yet professors and teaching fellows know more than us. They have to be confident in their assertions about what is necessary to know and what is a reasonable or unreasonable argument to make. One must understand the subjectivity of the humanities, but simultaneously hold that there is Truth out there, and expect students to make a decent stab at it.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.

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