Latest Vanished Requirements: Harvard English

You say you’re an English major—but you’ve never read a word of Chaucer, you don’t know which century Dickens wrote in (wasn’t he the author of “Scrooged”—or was that Bill Murray?), and you think “The Rape of the Lock” is about a guy with a sexual fixation involving keyholes.

Guess where you go to college? Harvard! Or rather, you will be the kind of English major Harvard is likely to churn out in the future if the university’s education policy committee approves a plan approved by the Harvard English department that aims to do away with a required year-long survey course of British literature from Beowulf to Seamus Heaney or so. This traditional-style introductory course known as English 10, which teaches the leading works of literature in chronological order, at least ensures that Harvard’s English majors have a smattering of exposure to, say, Paradise Lost and Middlemarch and won’t commit such bloopers as confusing Samuel Johnson with Ben Jonson or Keats with Yeats.

But chronological order is now out of fashion in literary studies (it’s too “linear”), as are lecture courses, which are supposed to be pedagogically inferior to small, intimate classes in which professors and students get an opportunity to bond. So the Harvard English department plans to dump English 10 in favor of four core “Affinity Group” seminars titled “Arrivals,” “Diffusions,” “Poets,” and “Shakespeares” (pluralizing everything, including the Bard, is ultra-au courant in today’s academia). Within these broad parameters (“Arrivals” is supposed to deal more or less with the Middle Ages and Renaissance and “Diffusions” with more recent centuries), the professors assigned to oversee the seminars will be free to teach whatever works of literature, and even non-literature, that they like. Can’t stand The Faerie Queene? Skip it. The nineteenth-century novel doesn’t float your boat? No worry—you can substitute a pamphlet written by or about “exiled convicts,” “economic migrants,” “colonized indigenes,” or “transported slaves,” as a departmental document leaked to the Harvard Crimson states Harvard’s English concentrators may graduate with only a spotty exposure to English authors and a hazy conception of exactly what happened, literarily speaking, over the centuries (even the “Shakespeares” seminar need not force its students to read much Shakespeare, since the emphasis is supposed to be on the “cultural pressures” of the time that “produced heterogeneity within and between Shakespeare’s plays”). But that’s all right with Harvard’s English faculty. “We are diminishing the role of chronology as the absolute, as the only organizing rubric…to combine it with genres and with geography as equally viable ways of thinking about literature and studying literature,” Daniel Donoghue, director of undergraduate studies for the English department, told Inside Higher Education.

Indeed, as the leaked document states, professors are encouraged to organize their seminars’ reading lists around such chin-pulling topics as “Invasion,” “Labor and the Common Good,” and “Internal Dissonances.” The goal is to “train students to connect artistic form and history” and to “introduce” them “to various kinds of diversity: chronological, spatial, generic.” According to Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt, the revamping of the English concentration will give students more freedom to fashion their own individualized “journeys” through English literature.

In getting rid of English 10, Harvard is actually following a nationwide trend toward eliminating core courses in literary studies (Yale, for example, requires of its English majors just two poetry classes plus the fulfilling of a handful of broad distribution requirements). Harvard’s English department has been for many years a holdout with its old-fashioned basic survey that ensured familiarity with the language’s literary masterpieces. Furthermore, although some Harvard undergrads told news reporters they were glad to see English 10 go, others decried the pending loss of “common academic experiences or familiarity with the same body of knowledge and literature,” as Crimson editorialist Christopher Lacaria wrote in a column. “While these innovations bode well for the undergrads interested in plumbing the depths of postcolonial narrative, they only further point to the ongoing crisis in liberal education,” Lacaria wrote.

Furthermore, many Harvard students (as the press reported) actually like English 10, which attracts not only English concentrators but students outside the department seeking to fulfill humanities distribution requirements, and they suspect, as Lacaria did, that the real reason the course is being dropped is that professors don’t like teaching introductory surveys, which they consider both beneath them as specialists and a violation of the postmodern dictum that there’s no such thing as a body of knowledge with which every educated person should be familiar. Harvard has been gradually getting rid of—or making optional for concentrators—its basic survey courses for years. The art history survey course disappeared years ago, supposedly to be replaced by smaller, more focused classes, but the decision proved so unpopular with undergrads that Harvard reinstated a version of it during the late 1990s. Similarly, when History 10, a European History survey, morphed in 1994 (according to the Crimson) from lectures on the Medici dynasty and the War of the Roses into a “professor using drawings of human genitalia to show that body image is a changing historical construct,” all but thirteen students promptly dropped the course.

As for English 10, one of its instructors, Gordon Teskey, has become a Harvard Yard cult figure, famous not only for his natty suits and ties (in contrast to the peasant clogs and vintage sweaters favored by many humanities professors these days) but also for his histrionic in-class readings from Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales. In an e-mail to me, Teskey wrote: “For what it’s worth, I think the chronological sweep of English literature is fundamental to an education in letters….As for lecturing, it was the way teaching has been done from the beginnings of the institution of the university, in Paris, when cathedral school teachers—teachers of monks and priest in training—decided to teach everyone who wanted to learn, and to do it on the street.”

The document from the English department leaked to the Crimson provides a telling glimpse into the sort of academic mindset that would jettison a popular survey course in favor of “Arrivals” and “Diffusions.” The document, replete with awkward diction (its trend-chasing authors favor the politically correct word “writing” over the elitist “literature”), jumbled tenses, and idiosyncratic grammar and punctuation, invites the question, “Do Harvard English professors know how to write English?” Here’s a sample:

All the great writing between the seventh and twelfth century is produced by invaders and immigrants who knew that “they” came from somewhere else. Thus writing in “English,” along with French, arrived in Britain from the Low Countries, Germany, and Normandy.

Uh, someone needs to tell the good professors up in Cambridge, Mass., that when the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes hit the shores of Old Blighty with their swords drawn after Rome fell, there was no such thing as the Low Countries, or Germany, for that matter. Harvard’s English faculty could use a dose of its own proposed training in connecting “artistic form and history”–actual history, that is.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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