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English literature at Harvard may get less English

November 29, 2008 | 12:02 pm


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