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English literature at Harvard may get less English


A proposed curriculum change for English majors at Harvard would get rid of two required survey courses of British literature. The English department guide describes 10a and 10b, both lecture classes, as constituting "a full-year introduction to British literature from Beowulf to the twentieth century." The Harvard Crimson reports:

The demise of the lecture courses is the most pronounced feature of a proposed overhaul of the undergraduate English program, the first in more than two decades....

The department still needs to iron out the details before a final vote can take place on the proposal. It appears almost certain, however, that the current form of the "Major British Writers" series will go.

The classes don't seem to be very popular. In that article, one student complained that 10a and 10b did little more than "repeat a lot of what we learned in high school." Another said that "it's hard to have a relationship with the text" because so many books are assigned. The New Yorker's Book Bench found a 2006 note: "Many students give up when assigned a 500-page George Eliot novel in one week" -- editorializing, wickedly, "Oh, come on, you call yourselves Harvard students?"

Frustration with 10a and 10b aside, the real issue with the courses appears to be that they overprescribe a course of study. From the Crimson:

The plan would trim the number of basic requirements for concentrators from six to four, which members of the department said would allow students more leeway to design their own curriculum.

The published reports make clear that requirements will continue -- a course in Shakespeare, literature of different time periods -- but that this change will enable students to study, say, American literature in more depth. This does not sit well with everyone. One Harvard senior -- Christopher Lacaria -- is outraged by the proposed changes. In an opinion column at the Crimson, he writes:

While these innovations may bode well for the undergrads interested in plumbing the depths of postcolonial narrative, they only further point to the ongoing crisis in liberal education.

I do love me some postcolonial narrative, and I might point out that "postcolonial narrative" -- depending on your cutoff -- now constitutes almost 500 hundred years of literature and culture. Lacaria is a history major, so perhaps it's not surprising that he looks backward: 

The Greek and Roman classics, and the modern canon of "great books" of literature and philosophy, once occupied much of the intellectual experiences of Harvard students -- presumably because the study of such works imparted knowledge of the virtues, and made men's minds "liberal" in the original sense, not slavish....

But as concentrations continue to scale back their programs in response to the later declaration deadline and departments continue to obliterate common requirements, any semblance of a coherent academic purpose has disappeared.

It's the old Great Books debate, repeated by a twentysomething Harvard student. "These resentniks have destroyed the canon," Harold Bloom told the New York Times in 1994. "The rabblement, the barbarians have taken over the academy." Lacaria would have been 6 or 7, so it's no wonder that he's sounding the same chords. Those who don't read postcolonial literature are doomed to repeat it. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by zenobia_joy via Flickr

Comments () | Archives (4)

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I have mixed feelings about this...
Yes, English courses notoriously give students a ridiculous amount of literature to read. It is the trademark of the discipline, really challenging your love of reading. One really discovers what they think about literature in such a discipline. I would expect Havard to be so hard core, but I think it's abundantly clear at this point that Havard's image is no match for it's actual environment.
Besides, I have great disdain for Mr. Harold Bloom after he bashed Stephen King for receiving recognition from the National Book Foundation.
Anyway, these are valid questions: What constitutes the English literature canon? Is it truly focused in Great Britain? What should be the extent of American writers' presence in English literature studies? And what about translations? What about people who write in English from a wide variety of countries? Would it truly do more justice to the study to land primarily on one nationality?
When I was younger I felt differently, but now it is very clear why the pursuit of an English degree favors British literature because Great Britannia was a great crucible for it in the time English was not so popular. Now that it is immensely popular, many more people can and have contributed to the canon. Indeed we must read way more than our ancestors because crucial works have continued to emerge. If one receives a BA in English, it would be ludicrous if they knew little of the first British English novelists and short story writers. They should also be familiar with contemporary works of authors from there and the US, much more so if you are studying in the US unless you want to come across as ignorant of your own or surrounding culture. That's my two cents.

It's funny how conservative Harvard students think they need to channel Matthew Arnold to sound intelligent.

A note on "post-colonial narrative"-- strictly speaking I believe it is meant to refer to texts written subsequent to the dissipation of European colonial empires in India, Africa, and, um, elsewhere. Looking back over 500 years of texts would be employing a post-colonialist perspective, not reclassifying earlier texts as post-colonial per se. The term seems to me problematic, as I think it is used --with good intentions-- too often as a blanket term to refer to "books written by people who are not white."

Anyway, it's not my area in any case, and I'm rambling, so I'll leave this here, but I welcome corrections if I'm the one who's misinformed.

I cant believe this debate won't die. Does anyone remember John Guillory's book Cultural Capital? Literary values are not monumental and neither are Harvard's values. These kids are smart enough to decide what to read.

the literary cannon is not a fixed particle - if it were we wouldn't read any women's literature from before the nineteenth century...this would of course be an outrage because one would be ignoring a whole fifty percent of the population and their literary output. the cannon is ever changing and expanding and this is surely a good thing. of course one needs a broad view of literature this includes texts past and PRESENT. as important as it is to read horace wyatt and wordsworth one should also read hesse proust and auster. no other subject is so stuck in traditionalism - science, geography, religion - they all move with the times and so should literature.


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