Living in the Material World: The Future of the Humanities

October 14, 2013

Anthony Cascardi, Dean, Arts and Humanities, College of Letters & Science, UC Berkeley

Ralph Lewin, President and CEO, Cal Humanities

Katie McDonough, Humanities and Arts Initiatives Coordinator, Office of the Dean, School of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University

Tyler Stovall, Dean, Undergraduate Division, College of Letters & Science, UC Berkeley

_Material culture in the last two centuries has often overshadowed the pursuit of subtler forms of happiness and understanding grouped under the title Humanities. Recently even the great universities, the last strongholds of liberal education, have been struggling to define the value of critical thinking versus career building. Where will subtler pursuits fit within the cultural onslaught of materialism?_

Here are my thoughts presented at this event:

Thank you to George Hammond for the invitation to speak tonight, I am very happy to be here. I just completed my PhD in History at Stanford in June, and since them have been working in this position coordinating humanities initiatives for undergraduates and graduates at Stanford. In my work this year, I have considered the type of faculty mentor I hope to be in the future. My remarks tonight are motivated by my wish to see humanities students as scholars who can engage with the public.

Stanford is searching for new ways to attract students to humanities courses while undergraduates flock to classes in popular majors such as Computer Science and Human Biology. Like Berkeley, we have some of the best humanities departments in the country, but enrollments are small in history or literature gateway courses. There is a very good reason for this: students and parents who are concerned about paying off debt after graduation feel pressure to pursue an education that (in theory) leads to easily identifiable job prospects.

How do we turn this tide? How do we make humanities education an affordable prospect that is attractive to students experiencing a level of financial stress greater than any previous generation?

In many ways, universities and colleges – including Stanford – have already made significant changes to adapt their programs to financial concerns. At Stanford, parents earning below $60,000 are not expected to contribute anything, and parents earning under $100,000 will have all tuition charges covered by non-loan aid. But research shows that most students who would be candidates for admission and eligible for this aid are not likely to apply. This is a communication problem about the perception of universities at the high school level, in families, and in communities where students do not typically apply to top schools.

Beyond this key issue of applications and aid, is the companion problem of postgraduate employment. There are a plethora of jobs for humanities majors, but (beyond the world of law, business, or medical school, or further academic study at the MA or PhD level) they require creative thinking and networking to find. One of the most important changes that institutions of higher education might make, then, is communicating about and increasing campus resources that help humanities students link their academic interests to non-academic pursuits.

If we can intensify the opportunities for humanities students to translate research skills, a passion for writing, and the ability to analyze global cultures of the past and present into employment that will pay for rent and student loans, we will be doing a great service to students who might otherwise abandon their humanities interests.

Across the disciplines, academic studies and professional development have never been and still are not separate pursuits. Career services, internship programs, and the presence of industry, policy, or cultural leaders as guest speakers could offer students countless resources for closely linking their coursework to their post-graduation plans. It is detrimental to position the skills and knowledge prized by the humanities at one end of the spectrum and career-oriented services and majors at the other.

Academic and career advising offices offer guidance that has traditionally been focused on tutoring, admittance to professional and graduate schools, corporate employment, and applications for prestigious scholarships. These important and usually very successful support systems that have proliferated as universities offer more to more students do not, however, adequately address the needs of students of English literature, Japanese history, or medieval art. Humanities students deserve more institutional attention.

In this summer’s reports on the state of the humanities in the US, there were calls for greater efforts to connect humanities scholarship to current public issues, to make the humanities more relevant to the American people. If, at the university level, we do not value the needs of undergraduate humanities students, then there is little incentive for society to do so.

Should we celebrate the humanities as group of disciplines that can stand apart from a materialistic world? As a society, we seem to identify a history or a literature professor as person who is not seeking great wealth, who is content to read and write and teach students in an idyllic college town away from the riches of the city. If this vision of academic culture in the humanities is not entirely accurate even for the early twentieth century, it is not at all representative of the professoriate of today. Becoming a professor requires extensive professional preparation and networking in addition to excellence in teaching and research. A severe distinction between career building and critical thinking cannot hold ground when confronted with the difficulties of securing academic employment.

For those students who have been encouraged to pursue graduate studies in the humanities, who have been the stars of their undergraduate programs, entry into a PhD program and eventually the academic job market is not (and has not been for decades) the easy pathway into a contemplative, writing life. We owe it to these talented students to guide them towards a wider range of opportunities. And the PhD, while a type professional preparation that we should not rule out, is not the only way for students to continue a life infused with the humanities. We cannot expect students to entirely abandon the material world, and it is the responsibility of higher education institutions to prepare students to take their academic passion beyond academia.

In the absence of campus resources and staff that help humanities students bridge the gap between courses and post-college life, it takes an exceptionally self-motivated student to build a strong link between the study of French literature and a job at Twitter. We should help students walk this pathway from humanities study to creatively-conceptualized employment. We should encourage students to enroll in humanities courses not just because they help one develop critical thinking skills and the ability make logical arguments, but also because they help expand the mind to envision the many elements contributing to a well-lived life.

In a new curricular program called Education as Self Fashioning, guest lectures and writing-intensive courses explore Montaigne’s suggestion to future students: “Let [the student] be asked for an account not merely of the words of his lesson, but of its sense and substance, and judge the profit he has made by the testimony not of his memory, but of his life.” This investigation of an education for life is meant to help students try on different identities, be conscious of their academic choices, and to reflect on the meaning of college education. Beyond this course, which is aimed at freshmen, how are we helping students at Stanford bridge the gap between academic study and humanities pursuits after college?

First, we are working hard to communicate to high school students about Stanford’s strengths in the humanities. This summer, 100 high school students from around the world participated in the Summer Humanities Institute taught by literature, history, and philosophy faculty. This early intensive experience with faculty, grad students, and peers gave the students a sampling of what undergraduate humanities study involves, and they want to come back for more.

Once undergraduates are on campus, they can enroll in immersive experiences such as the Arts Intensive, a 3-week course that combines art-making with the exploration of art as an occupation. Students are also increasingly participating in service-learning courses led by humanities faculty. These classes combine project work in local communities with in-depth study of a topic like human trafficking, and allow students to link writing and research to real political issues.

New this year, humanities majors will be eligible for special funding to participate in a foundational business course at the Graduate School of Business. For students who feel pressure to set aside their interest in a humanities field during college, this program provides an introduction to a range of critical job skills that they can pair with their humanities major. An art history student could, for example, gain the necessary management background for entering an arts administration position.

Finally, at Stanford’s Career Development Center, we hope that ongoing major changes will make a significant difference in the perception of the value of a humanities-oriented education. Our new director has redesigned the Center’s methods for interacting with students, adopting a community-based approach to counseling. Humanities and Social Science undergraduates now have a dedicated counselor who will collaborate with faculty and department staff and meet with students in their departments. Rather than offering limited advice to smaller student populations who self-identified with a particular industry, these counselors will be better placed to address the needs of majors who want to explore many job options. Because disciplines like history and English open up a vast horizon of futures, students need counselors who can understand this perspective and encourage students to think inventively about their long-term goals.

These new institutional resources have been shaped with humanities students in mind. They represent part of Stanford’s efforts to connect humanities students, faculty, and staff, and to show these groups how to communicate more effectively about students’ educational goals. The humanities should be seen as useful in the professional world, in public policy, and also in personal development, and schools should celebrate those students who take the humanities seriously in their life pursuits. The rigor of the humanities will only be valued widely if students and faculty can make research, analysis, and communication visible in society. There should be no obstacle between the body at work and the mind attuned to critical thinking.