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Whither the Liberal Arts at Harvard?

Reexamining Harvard's nominal commitment to the "liberal arts"


Harvard College loves to brag that it provides all undergraduate students a liberal arts education. As a campus tour guide, I frequently tell prospective students interested in “business,” “pre-med,” and “communications” that at Harvard, they can pursue these interests in their summers and their extracurricular time—but in class, they will get the chance to study history, theory, ethics. In fact, our Economics department seems almost proud that so many students each year cross-register at MIT to take “Corporate Financial Accounting” for its relevance to investment banking: Not offering an accounting course somehow seems to prove our university’s commitment to the liberal arts. We will teach economic theory, not practical applications, in our classes.

Yet Harvard College may have to revisit its vision of itself as a “liberal arts college.” From the growing number of apparently pre-professional undergraduate classes to the expanding School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, our College does not seem to have a coherent idea of what exactly counts as a liberal art.

Clearly, Harvard undergraduates frequently take pre-professional classes. For one, undergraduates are encouraged to cross-register at Harvard’s professional schools. I know pre-law students who have studied Contracts at the Law School, pre-med students who have anesthetized pigs at the Medical School, and budding politicians who have studied policy at the Kennedy School. In addition, Harvard’s Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, which I admire, licenses graduates to teach in Massachusetts public schools (and in the many states with which Massachusetts has reciprocity) after students take classes at the Graduate School of Education and complete multiple semesters of in-school observation and student teaching. Harvard obviously has no policy against undergraduates taking pre-professional classes.

From a brief glance at the spring semester course catalogue, Harvard College also seems to offer classes preparing students for jobs in investment banking and software engineering. Professor of the Practice in Statistics Stephen Blyth will teach Statistics 123: “Applied Quantitative Finance.” The class markets itself as an “introduction to financial derivative markets and the probabilistic techniques used to navigate them” and uses a “methodology motivated by real problems from the financial industry.” Blyth, currently Managing Director and Head of Public Markets at Harvard Management Company and formerly of Deutsche Bank and Morgan Stanley, notes on his course description that “Applied Quantitative Finance” is “designed for those seeking an understanding of the quantitative challenges on Wall Street and the probabilistic tool-kit developed to address them.” Also this spring, in Computer Science 164: “Software Engineering,” students will learn “principles of software engineering and best practices… projects include web apps with front-end UIs (mobile and desktop) and back-end APIs.” I am not an expert in either the finance industry or software engineering, but from these course descriptions it seems to me that the “Software Engineering” and “Applied Quantitative Finance” classes teach pre-professional skills for jobs in software engineering and quantitative finance—two of the most popular (and lucrative) post-grad jobs.

In its ambitious capital campaign, Harvard promises to raise a huge amount of money to expand the School of Engineering and Applied Science.  Harvard insists that its vision for SEAS is “anchored in the liberal arts.” But in practice, this seems to mean simply that engineering concentrators also need to complete General Education requirements so that they can “understand the societal context of their technical work.” As I have learned from my time in Harvard’s Program on Science, Technology, and Society, truly understanding the social implications of engineering and technology requires much more than taking one class labeled “Ethical and Moral Reasoning.” And there’s certainly more that needs to be said about how Harvard’s capital campaign priorities fit in to the widely-bemoaned decline of the humanities.

Ezra Klein suggests that the huge percentage of Harvard College graduates heading to Wall Street after graduation is due to the weak preparation liberal arts students have for more professions. He writes that investment banks, management consulting firms, and Teach For America are “taking advantage of the weakness of liberal arts education.” According to Klein, “Wall Street is promising to give graduates the skills their university education didn’t.” Does this imply that Harvard should offer classes that teach real skills in careers we would rather graduates be pursuing—medicine, public service, journalism, the arts?

This would be disappointing to me and, I assume, a lot of other students who came to Harvard College expecting a liberal arts education and environment. But better to intentionally craft pre-professional programs than to disguise pre-professional classes under the guise of computer science or statistics, or to let entire generations of Romance languages and literatures or African and African American studies concentrators fall into the soulless depths of Wall Street because they fear they won’t find any other jobs.

If Harvard truly wants to expand SEAS, it has to think long and hard about how exactly to maintain its liberal arts vision. On the other hand, if Harvard’s vision for its future really focuses on engineering and technology, then it’s time to reframe the Harvard College experience. Perhaps Harvard’s professors and undergraduates are truly interested in software engineering more than they are in theoretical computer science. Perhaps economics and statistics concentrators are more excited by derivative trading and the finance industry than they are by mathematical models of economic development. If this is true, wouldn’t it serve Harvard better to simply be honest—that our College is not completely committed to liberal arts education?

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House.  Follow her on Twitter @sandraylk.

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