In 1906, at a now legendary dinner at Boston’s Tavern Club, Barrett Wendell proposed a program in History & Literature. At the time, President Eliot’s “elective system” allowed students to take any sixteen courses in the College and graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Wendell, a professor of English, sought to counter the pleasant anarchy of this system with a more focused plan of study. Students of History & Literature, he thought, should take courses in both History and English, including courses on Shakespeare, the Bible, and various authors of antiquity, among them Herodotus and Thucydides.
To bind the program together, Wendell thought that students should also supplement their coursework with independent reading, conducted over the summer and then discussed with a faculty member. These extra sessions between students and faculty developed into our tutorial system. Thus History & Literature, created thirteen years before the College established a system of concentrations in 1919, is the oldest field of concentration at Harvard.
Over one hundred years since its inception, History & Literature has undergone a number of significant changes. The classical and Biblical underpinnings have been replaced by a global view of the humanities that encourages transnational, cross-cultural, and comparative work. The curricular offerings of the Tutorial Board have evolved as well: left-wing progressive in the 1930s, more traditionally humanist in the 1950s, increasingly diversified and interdisciplinary in the years since.
The continuities have been equally significant. From the start, History & Literature has sought to create a dialogue between disciplines, acquainting students with historical and literary theories and methods, and improving the quality of each student’s writing through individualized instruction. History & Literature remains one of the few degree programs in which all students are expected to write a senior thesis.