Culture and Belief

In developing an awareness of themselves and other people as products of and participants in traditions of culture and belief, students need to do more than acquire skills in interpreting and responding to art and ideas—the aim of courses in the Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding subject area, above. They need to put these works in context—to see how social, political, religious, and economic, and cross-cultural conditions shape the production and reception of ideas and works of art. They also need to learn about the ways in which cultures and beliefs mediate people’s understanding of themselves and the world.

The role of culture and belief in shaping identities and communities is not simple: culture and belief can cause change, and they can also be sources of resistance to change. Cultural expressions have never been more widely disseminated. Music, images, and literature of all kinds are accessible to an extent unheard of even twenty years ago, and this has altered the way we think about cultures. We are more aware than ever of the degree to which cultures feed off one another across national, regional, religious, and ethnic boundaries. Yet it is often in the name of their culture that national and ethnic groups engage in conflict with other groups.

Religious beliefs and practices are topics that some courses in this category should address. Religion has historically been, and continues to be, a force shaping identity and behavior throughout the world. Harvard is a secular institution, but religion is an important part of our students’ lives. (Ninety-four percent of Harvard’s incoming students report that they discuss religion “frequently” or “occasionally,” and seventy-one percent say that they attend religious services.) When they get to college, students often struggle to sort out the relationship between their own beliefs and practices and those of fellow students, and the relationship of religious belief to the resolutely secular world of the academy. It is also important for students to have the opportunity to learn something about the impact that religious belief and practice has on the world, as well as on themselves.

There are many topics of wide practical and intellectual interest that courses in Culture and Belief might address: problems of translation, the concept of authorship (its significance for claims about plagiarism or copyright), censorship, conflicting interpretations of religious and other texts, institutional mediation of aesthetic experience (art museums, the music industry, the church), canon formation, the tensions between modernity and reactionary thinking, violence and its representation.

Courses in Culture and Belief should:

  • develop an understanding of and appreciation for traditions of culture and belief in human societies;
  • introduce students to primary texts in any language, works of art in one or more media, or ethnographies, social histories, or other secondary texts;
  • develop the ability to analyze these works in the light of their historical, social, political, economic, religious, and/or cross-cultural conditions of production and reception;
  • examine ways in which traditions of culture and belief shape the identities of individuals and communities; and
  • draw connections between the material covered in the course and cultural issues of concern or interest that are likely to arise in students’ own lives.

See my.harvard for a list of courses that satisfy this category.  Using the Advanced Search function, select Culture and Belief from the drop-down menu found under FAS – Additional Attributes.

Learn about other General Education categories.