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Saturday, Dec 20, 2014

Harvard Humanities Professors Admit Liberal Bias

  • (Photo: Courtesy of Harvard University)
    Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. The University, which is based in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, has an enrollment of over 20,000 degree candidates, including undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Harvard has more than 360,000 alumni around the world.
June 10, 2013|6:45 pm

There is some truth to conservative concerns that there is a liberal bias in the humanities, claims a new report on the state of humanities education at Harvard University.

Professors "committed to criticism as critique might recognize a kernel of truth in conservative fears about the left-leaning academy," states the report, "The Teaching of Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future."

The report was one result of an 18-month review of the humanities division at Harvard. Ten humanities professors were involved in writing the report, which was headed by Professor James Simpson from the English department and Professor Sean Kelly from the Philosophy Department.

In particular, the report addresses concerns about the declining number of students who choose a major in the humanities. Nationwide, the report notes, bachelor's degrees in the humanities have fallen from 14 to seven percent of all degrees since 1966.

Some students may feel alienated in humanities classes, the report warns, because they believe "some ideas are unspeakable in our classrooms."

The authors also bemoan the fact that conservative students may have that impression because their parents, their pastors or news shows said their views are not welcome in humanities classrooms.

"Confusingly, these may be ideas that they have heard from their parents around the dinner table, from the pulpit in their houses of worship, or from the media to which they have been exposed."

The report advises humanities professors to not deny their bias, but to encourage open dialogue and disagreement.

"It is not that as teachers we should pretend to speak from some point of uninflected objectivity, but that we should admit and mark the fact that opinions and orientations shape our thinking; acknowledge the fact that intelligent people may disagree; and encourage real debate rather than the answers our undergraduates are smart enough to know we want to hear."

Diana Sorenson, dean of Arts and Humanities for Harvard, told The Wall Street Journal that this "is an anti-intellectual moment, and what matters to me is that we, the people in arts and humanities, find creative and affirmative ways of engaging the moment."

Among its recommendations, the report suggests focusing more on undergraduate teaching, especially for freshmen, emphasizing career choices for humanities majors, and working more with other disciplines, especially the social sciences ("we should not aim to imitate the social sciences, but our students do consistently express the desire to contribute positively to society; we might reflect on that in course definition.")

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