Rationale for Symposium

Statistics from the Harvard University Humanities Report (2013) reveal that the percentage of students concentrating in the Humanities is declining and that more than half of the pre-freshmen who intend to concentrate in the Humanities later make the decision to concentrate in a different division[1].

Factors cited within the report as those that influence students’ anticipated major before college include:

  • Self-development and curiosity;
  • Experience before Harvard academics;
  • Perceived usefulness of the major for their future career;
  • Extracurricular experience before Harvard;
  • Advice from teachers and peers.

Thus, according to the report, when students arrive at Harvard, they show interest in concentrations based on intellectual curiosity, high school experiences, and the opportunity to contribute positively to society. Unfortunately, most would-be humanities concentrators change their minds and decide to pursue other concentrations during their freshmen year of study.

In many foreign language and literature departments, freshmen enroll in courses at the beginning, intermediate, or advanced levels based on their previous exposure to the language and culture in high school and their placement evaluated via Harvard placement tests. The overarching goals of many foreign language and literature courses are to allow learners to examine cultural artifacts; to interpret language and discourse critically; to develop insights into global, cross-cultural, and historical perspectives; and to acquire strategies for effective communication. The following two questions then arise:

  • How do the goals of our beginning, intermediate, and advanced courses align with the goals of Harvard freshmen?
  • How should we articulate or re-evaluate our goals, construct our curricula, and evaluate our progress in order to build programs that both meet departmental goals and, at the same time, encourage freshmen to continue to study of foreign language, culture, and literature?

To answer these questions, we propose establishing a forum of experts, Harvard faculty, and students who will present new ideas, diverse perspectives, and innovative models of language program evaluation, followed by a collaborative discussion among experts and attendees regarding future initiatives.


[1] The Teaching of Arts & Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future (May, 2013)