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Harvard. For most, the word conjures up an image of classicalism: British-tinged accents lecturing on about the glories of Rome, perhaps, or a group of neckties debating the relevancy of Aristophanes to the civil disobedience campaigns of the 19th century.
Sure, there is room for diversity: Harvard without discussion of campus radicalism in the ’60s or global trends in religious pluralism would seem equally empty, and Harvard sets the trends for what is both respectable and prestigious in American academia. But the decisions of Harvard’s programs in English, Classics, and Visual and Environmental Studies (VES, which is Harvard-ese for “art”) to abandon the canons of their fields in pursuit of greater “flexibility” are very troubling and indicative of an unwillingness to do the necessary work of judging the importance of various works and people.
The coming years will see considerable changes for humanities majors here at Harvard. Formerly required survey courses in British Literature for English majors are now gone, replaced by a smattering of courses from a buffet of required but loosely-defined subfields of study, like “Arrivals” and “Diffusions.” It is disappointing that Dickens, Eyre, Bronte, Blake, and Milton are now deemed merely optional. To think that an English student could avoid them and still make it out with a full degree seems like overindulgence in student liberty.
More absurd than overindulgent is VES’s decision to let its second-to-last traditional studio painting professor go in order to hire a new concept artist. Concept art is all good and well, but it is entirely unacceptable that a student at any decent liberal arts institution should be denied the opportunity to learn the most basic and ancient of all art forms.
Speaking of ancient things, one would think that Classics would at least maintain an emphasis on classical languages. Harvard, like most other post-secondary places with liberal arts programs, does indeed have a History Department with specialized tracks in ancient classical history. The faculty of the Classics Department, though, felt that they needed to become more “accessible” to history students and axed Greek and Latin language requirements this year. It is therefore now possible to get an undergraduate degree in Classics without speaking any language other than American English.
What do these changes say about society at large, and why bother writing about them on a political blog? America has lost its sense of cultural identity and discriminating judgment. Faced with a world full of beautiful human accomplishments, we have a tough time picking and choosing what is truly canonical. Says who that a student needs to study Shakespeare and Rembrandt rather than, say, William Carlos Williams and Sol LeWitt? That is a worthy question, and updating the canon of every field is a constant task. Unfortunately, in an age of relativism and subjectivity taken to the extreme, there is no will among academics to carry out that work. Academics seem a bit confused, and perhaps John Keats is to blame. After all, if beauty is truth and beauty is in the eye of the beholder alone, then how dare academics pronounce their judgment and declare works to be canonical?
The alternative of letting students graduate with music degrees for studying J-pop, though, is unacceptable. A good education is based not solely on the liberty of each student to take whatever seems most important or easiest to her; it is based on instructing people in whatever society needs her to know.
It is the job of collegiate faculties to determine just what society needs each of its educated members to know, and to enforce their judgments on sometimes unwilling students. I would count myself among the number of the unwilling when it comes to Aristotle, for example, since I find him extremely complex and particularly anal with his categorizations of everything, but I can see that there is benefit to knowing more about him than about even my beloved Albert Camus. Besides, I am a student and, by attending a university, am giving it the prerogative to know more than me and be wiser than me. It may be heresy to most of my American peers, but I am willing to defer to those who are better than me at knowing things.
Cultural anarchy and university policies that shirk the duty of defining canons and requirements instill an excessive sense of individual importance and subjectivity that society does not honor. It is all well and good for a college to prize postmodern Swedish protest performance art over El Greco, but in an age of shrinking budgets and an economy that wants flexible people rather than experts in the obscure, faculties need to get back to their roots and begin the painstaking task of defining a canon for 21st century liberal education.
To continue along the current line of thought is to communicate to students that life is all about doing whatever you please however you please, all tradition and social conventions be damned.
Taken to its extreme, that means new lawyers more interested in the psychological underpinnings of post-modernist conceptions of ambiguous gender roles, rather than in due procedure. It means new teachers more interested in multiethnic convergences in sixteenth century Russia than in great American novels. It means the descent of the intellectual class into hyper-specialization and personal whims instead its elevation into foundational knowledge and cultural understanding.
If that isn’t the end of organized civilization and discerning judgment as we know it, then it is at the very least the end of the notion that anyone needs to listen to the wisdom of the past and respect the authority of experts. This is not to suggest a blind adherence to the past or a rejection of the very individualism that makes wisdom and expertise possible, but it is a call to conserve those valued works and judgments that have made Western civilization the beautiful, culturally-rich entity that it is.
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