Harvard

Beware: Hodgepodge of learning omits great books

Reconsidering the elective system during the Cold War

Harvard's President Charles Norton Eliot introduced "the elective system" in the undergraduate curriculum in the late 19th century. Taking non-required non-sequential courses! Take courses you want! Explore topics freely! It was a revolution.

In 1952 (yes that many years later — but of course it was the politically paranoid 50s) George Boas was writing in the AAUP Bulletin* that the elective system was “devised for a society of free men who knew what they wanted to study and who could be tested for the aptitude in making their choices.”

But, he adds — and here comes a particular kind of conservative backlash — but... “it did not take long for some people to point out that this might lead to a hodgepodge of learning which would omit the greatest that had been thought and said.” Great Books, in other words — the very practice of Great Books, following from the conservative argument Boas cites against academic liberalism. But not the Great Books curriculum fully deployed.

For if we really did Great Books fully, we’d notice that “each later author has been a rebel against the dominant traditions of his time. But of course such lists usually stop at a date well before our own times and we are not usually aware of precisely what harm to tradition was done by the men who figure on them.” And finally, to clinch this argument: “If you were living in the early days of Christianity, you would have seen the same kind of confusion and intellectual anarchy as you hear about today. But what is called confusion is the outspokenness of recalcitrant individuals. When they are dead, they are spoken of as heroes and prophets. But while they are alive, they are noncooperative, radical, and heretical.”

Wallace Stevens comes to PennSound

After months--several years--of digitizing, consulting, traveling, etc., we at PennSound are now ready to make available the recordings of Wallace Stevens reading his own poetry. We begin our new Stevens author page with two readings he gave at Harvard near the end of his life. Our friends at the Woodberry Poetry Room at Lamont Library (though organizationally Woodberry now is part of the Houghton Library system) have shared these with us. Peter Hanchak--only child of Holly Stevens who was the only child of Wallace and Elsie Stevens--has given us at PennSound permission to make available whatever Stevens recordings we can find. I'm personally very grateful to Peter, who clearly understands that PennSound is all about noncommercial, educational use. Thanks to Joan Richardson and John Serio who helped me work with Peter on this; and thanks to Christina Davis, new director at the Woodberry, and Don Share, former director there, for their help and advice as we've moved forward. It's our hope, of course, that the way Stevens is taught will at least somewhat change now that his own way of reading the poems is widely and freely available. Long live open access!

Bob Grenier, student of Robert Lowell (and more)

A few months ago, during Robert Grenier's most recent visit to Philadelphia, I sat with him — joined by Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman — and talked about his life and work in the early period, covering roughly 1958 through 1964. We talked a lot about his experience (in two stints) at Harvard. During the second of these he met and was taught by Robert Lowell. In between he wandered to San Francisco and met Robert Creeley in New Mexico. The recording of this 1 hour, 16 minute discussion is available on the Grenier author page at PennSound. Here is a direct link to the audio.

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