Harvard has an identity crisis. Allegedly, it is a liberal arts college, but it has totally forgotten what that means. Instead of seeking to provide a humanistic education undergirded by strong curricular requirements, Harvard just wants us to take classes in topics outside of our concentration, and doesn’t particularly care what those are. Harvard provides a liberal arts education for its marketing appeal without the burden of actually believing in the pillars of that education.
The extent of the liberal arts curriculum which remains at Harvard is entirely vestigial, such as the General Education program, distribution requirements, and the language requirement. When a limb exists without its body, it seizes to have any utility. The language requirement is unsure of its own goal, and whatever end it may have it surely does not reach.
The language requirement developed from the original mandatory study of Greek and Latin. One hardly ever sees a justification of these languages, instead hearing that we should learn Latin so we can learn something else.
Of course, the point of studying a language is to be able to read the literature in that language. Implicit in its requirements, Harvard once believed that it is important to read Horace and Homer. Harvard averred that there are certain works with which any cultured and educated person should be familiar because they are great. Now, Harvard tells us “The College affirms that the learning of a language other than English is an essential component of a liberal art and sciences education.” It is not clear how two semesters of a language achieves this, nor what it has to do with a liberal arts education. Harvard seemingly just wants us to gain some sort of exposure without ensuring that we actually know a language.
There is no use studying a language but not understanding it. The language requirement is incomplete. It is like picking up a cup of water, putting it up to your mouth, and then putting the cup right back down before you are able to drink anything.
Harvard hurts itself further by making exceptions to the language requirement. It would seem that if the biggest fault of the language requirement is that two semesters of a language don’t accomplish anything, then the greatest resource the College could have are people who are well versed enough in a language to actually explore it deeply. Scoring 700 on the SAT II in Spanish means one has a pretty good grasp of grammar and vocabulary, but it certainly doesn’t mean one has engaged with Borges or Cervantes. Students are done a disservice when they complete their high school language regime and then wipe their hands and forget that the subjunctive exists. Harvard ought to push students to be able to do something with the skills they came in with.
Harvard created its own problem. A language requirement would be a lot simpler if students were required to come into the College with a solid grasp of a language. Then, Harvard would know that whoever enrolls will only require two or four semesters, whatever language it may be, until she has not only the exposure to a language, but skill. Obviously, the problem is that Harvard cannot count on high schools to actually teach their students a language.
Harvard ruined high school language education, not vice versa. Former University President Charles Eliot set Harvard on this downward path when he got rid of the pre-enrollment requirement of study of Greek and Latin. Schools no longer had the pressure to educate their students, because Harvard and the other elite schools no longer cared. Harvard recommends four years of foreign language study in high school, but schools do not have to actually teach the language because students do not need to demonstrate knowledge to Harvard in order to gain acceptance.
Students could delve so much deeper into the greatest works of literature if Harvard made the language requirement a strong one. Ultimately, this suggestion may be outdated. It accepts the premise promulgated by Harvard that it is a liberal arts school, or at least requires a liberal arts education. Observationally, that is false.
Harvard should embrace an identity one way or another. If it is to offer a liberal arts education, offer one properly. If it mostly cares about students excelling in their specialties, then stop distracting them with other requirements.
The language requirement can go in two directions, but it cannot stay where it is. Either Harvard has to give it the power it needs to fulfill its purpose, or Harvard needs to get rid of it altogether. Honesty is the best policy. When we take it upon ourselves to do something and commit ourselves to an ideal, we ought to strive to achieve that. If there is a previous philosophy which has now gone out of fashion, we either ought to defend it relentlessly, or throw it to the wayside. Pretending to care about it but only offering it negligence is useless and disrespectful.
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.
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