Harry Lewis, a professor and former dean of Harvard College, wrote yesterday that the texts Harvard freshmen are reading this year "are more politically correct and less challenging than they used to be." Yes, it would seem so. Here are this year's readings:
A More Perfect Union, Barack Obama
Whistling Vivaldi , Claude M. Steele
Choosing the Color of My Collar, David Tebaldi '10
Every Asian American I Know Is Smart, Frank H. Wu
Who Is the Surgeon? , Chris Barrett, GSAS '12
Psalm, Wislawa Szymborska
Demographic Snapshot of the Harvard Class of 2016
The first thing to note is that the inclusion of President Obama's famous speech carries a political and partisan weight this year that it would not have had last year or next. Lewis writes: "Was there really no alternative to including the Obama text as required reading for all freshmen, two months before the first election in which many of them will vote?"
Worse, this year's texts give new Harvard students clear clues on what grievances they ought to feel and which class and racial resentments are deemed proper on this famous campus. And the emphasis on stereotypes is heavy: Claude Steele's depiction of stereotype threat as a reason for lack of success by many qualified women and minorities; Frank Wu's complaint that Asian-Americans are conventionally stereotyped as smart and successful; David Tebaldi's discomfort as a black student of humble means at Harvard confronted by bewildering expectations and, yes, stereotypes; and Chris Barrett's rambling complaint that people always think of surgeons as male and heterosexual.
These readings are thin gruel indeed, saying the same thing over and over and shaping discussions scheduled to be based on these readings the same way. Claude Steele's controversial theory of stereotype threat, to give one example, might have been balanced by inclusion of a piece by his brother, Shelby Steele, an equally prominent scholar who disagrees.
The last text on the list is a poem by the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, which begins (in translation): "Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!," and ends "Only what is human can truly be foreign. The rest is mixed vegetation, subversive moles and wind."
A final note: though the readings were presented in the name of "diversity," no white male made the list.