Curriculum Analysis — English Department

Harvard News 12/5/83–Editorial – CURRICULUM ANALYSIS: PART 4

By E. Randol Schoenberg, Editor-in-Chief and Bart Aronson, Features Editor

The English Department has recently proposed a drastic change in its Senior curriculum. Our editorial, therefore, will be composed of two parts, one describing the new curriculum, and the other analyzing and proposing alternatives to the new curriculum plans.

The decision has been made, by the Curriculum Committee and the English Department, to adopt a Senior English course, outlined by Ms. Suzy Moser. This course will be the only alternative to AP English for Seniors; all other English courses will be electives, taken in addition to the Senior Course by an estimated 30-40 students. “The decision was basically a philosophical one,” noted Dr. Robert Archer, Chairman of the English Department. He cited three points of justification for the change. First, a “Senior English” course looks better on a college application than some of the electives. Electives began to be allowed in place of a Senior English course over fifteen years ago as a result of the liberal attitude at the time. “Harvard jumped on the bandwagon back then,” Dr. Archer said, but now the school has decided to move away from the electives because of the noted unchanging, anti-intellectual connotation they have gained in recent educational discussions. Obviously, Harvard’s electives are far from unchallenging or anti-intellectual, but the Curriculum Committee felt that the change should still be made to a strong, solid easily identifiable Senior English course. The second reason for the change is that Harvard students spend a great amount of time on Composition in grade 10 and 11 which detracts from the students’ knowledge of world literature. “Eleventh graders turn in 26 papers during the course of a single year,” said Dr. Archer, adding that most public school students do not write nearly that much during their entire high school experience. The Senior English course will incorporate many of the materials reading electives now, especially those read in Shakespeare and American literature. The Senior English course would, theoretically, round out Harvard students’ knowledge of world literature and the mandatory nature of the Senior courses would encourage more people to take AP English. And third, the committee concluded that Harvard students should not specialize in their study of English literature so early. Courses such as Science Fiction and Logic and Language, have been dropped in the past, despite their popularity, because of their narrow approach to literature. Similar attacks have been made on Shakespeare, “one author,” and Utopian Literature, “one theme.” These three philosophical and somewhat practical reasons for the mandatory Senior English course will have some tremendous effects on the nature of the English Department.

As a consequence of the new mandatory Senior English course, there will be a dramatic increase in the number of people taking electives and the number of electives offered will be reduced. Modern Thought and Literature, Dramatic Literature, and Shakespeare will no long be offered at Harvard. American Literature, Utopian Literature, and a full year course made up of one quarter of Composition and two quarters of Other Voices, Other Views will be the three full-year English electives. As a new policy, there will be no one-quarter course in the English Department. In short, to take an elective, a student will have to take two full year courses in English and thus will have to drop a course, in another subject. But one purpose of reducing the emphasis on electives is to encourage the more qualified students to take AP English. Some of these people now choose electives over the AP course which is broader and possibly more valuable than its elective counterparts. Dr. Archer said, “If we can funnel twenty more students into AP English then that will be worth losing our elective courses.” This philosophy is very different from one that caused the addition of electives in English but as Dr. Archer puts it, “It is not a choice between good and evil . . . but one of philosophical and practical considerations.”

These considerations, their validity, and possible alternatives to them are the subject of this editorial.

Initially, it has been suggested that the current electives are lumped together with such public school courses as “Home Economics” and “Metal Shop” by the colleges, and viewed unfavorably. No one doubts, of course, that Harvard’s Senior electives are rigorous: the teachers who teach them guarantee that. Furthermore, Harvard has a reputation for having high standards and offering difficult courses; there are few “Mickey Mouse” courses here, and none of them are Senior English electives. Harvard Seniors who take such courses have, as a perusal of our matriculation record would indicate, little difficulty in being accepted at prestigious universities. It does not seem that our electives hurt our student’s college chances in any demonstrable way.

Second, it has been said that, if a Senior elective is made a mandatory alternative to AP English, more students will be “encouraged” to take the advanced course. We firmly believe that students who take AP English should do so only because they are committed to the rigorous nature and material of the course. People who truly want to take AP English—whether for the AP credit or the material taught; will do so without regard for other courses offered. The course’s ranks should not be filled by those who dislike the curriculum of the mandatory Senior course. Rather, students should have the opportunity, as they have had in the past, to take advantage of the varied talents of those in the English Department. And students should also be able, since a Senior year in English should be required, to take courses which interest them—without having to burden themselves with two English courses. That is how the department currently functions; its success speaks for itself.

That the Senior electives, as currently offered, are too “narrow” in content, has also been suggested. It is difficult to imagine, however, a course with the breadth greater than Modern Thought and Literature. Furthermore, the study of Shakespeare—“one author”—as the most important figure in the English language is traditional and, almost, above reproach. The “Utopian Literature” course has a deceptively narrow title: the course covers a tremendous amount of philosophical material—and the Senor year is a time for thought and philosophy. Such courses—far from being narrow, take advantage of the unique talents and experiences of our outstanding English Department’s faculty, and provide fascinating areas of study for our students.

We believe, however, that a stock Senor elective could find a place in Harvard’s English curriculum. The time will come when a teacher, who teachers a senior elective and other course, will leave Harvard. When that time comes, the new teacher will not only have to adjust to a new school and our course structure, but he or she will also be burdened with filling that Senior elective spot. Perhaps, that teacher could teach a stock English course, with an existing structure and syllabus. At the same time, that teacher, or another teacher in the department, could develop a Senor elective. One year, two years, three years later—after that Senior elective is developed—that elective would be substituted for the stock course. Hence, the stock course would be available for when there is a lack of elective sections, but only with the understanding that, while it is being taught, a Senor elective would be developed. The stock Senior course would not be a requirement; it would simply be another elective.

Such a stock elective could either be a chronological English and American literature survey course, or a world literature course. It should emphasize reading, however, as do most of the current Senior electives. After the rigorous Junior writing course, the Senior year should be a time for discussing trends and ideas, not writing close textual analyses. The AP English course, which has a specific goal, is of course, an exception.

Under such a system, the English department would continue to take advantage of the unique talents of its teachers and, the same time, be able to handle any future faculty changes.


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