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Academic Flexibility

Recent History and Literature policy change shows the value of listening to students

In a laudable response to concentrators’ input, the History and Literature department has moved to increase the flexibility of students’ potential courses of study, now allowing students to bind their studies to a time period rather than only to a region. By virtue of this change, concentrators will no longer need to perform academic acrobatics to satisfy concentration requirements all the while, but instead will be able to firmly anchor their concentration in their true intellectual interests.

It is crucial to note that these alternative options do not come at the expense of rigor. Each concentrator has an advisor who offers personalized help in seeking out a course of study that is both intriguing and challenging. Furthermore, modifying the History and Literature concentration along such a basic axis as allowing students to study a time period hardly revolutionizes it, but rather gives students more room to explore topics creatively. In short, there is no apparent downside to this change.

We often complain when administrators fail to take student requests into account, but this change is a welcome example of the opposite phenomenon: Rather than maintaining rigid requirements for the sake of consistency alone, the History and Literature department responded to student input and made a common-sense change that gives students critical academic flexibility. This decision making process was both effective and organic, and it represents an ideal for which other departments should strive.

This change to the History and Literature requirements is not the only area in which administrators would benefit from listening to students on academic issues. Students and faculty alike have called for the creation of more robust academic programs in Asian American and Latin American studies. While we understand the many difficulties of establishing new academic committees and departments—such as hiring faculty and recruiting graduate students—increasing the reach of Harvard’s scholarship is important. Current efforts should continue to gather strength as professors offer more courses in the fields to gauge student interest.

These considerations lead to a more general notion: Harvard should continue to sponsor disciplines and concentrations not only for their traditional value or place in academia, but also for their value in the eyes of the students who know their own interests better than anyone else. This is not to say that Harvard or universities at large should dispense with their great traditions, but rather to say that the preservation of traditions should not undercut the development of new disciplines. Given that Harvard advertises itself as a liberal arts institution where students can choose to study subjects that pique their interest, responsiveness to students’ needs is indispensable.

Ultimately, any discipline, no matter its age, must constantly change to meet the needs of its students. After all, even History and Literature, Harvard’s oldest concentration, continues to model such evolution to this day.

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