Op-ed Series on Undergraduate Humanities Education

Earlier in April the Stanford student newspaper, The Daily, ran a series of op-eds on the humanities. Contributions came from all quarters - the deans of the School of Humanities and Sciences and the School of Medicine, faculty in Creative Writing, Comparative Literature, and History, and students across the disciplines.

The idea for the series came along after I read wide ranging opinion pieces about reforming humanities education in the Harvard Crimson student paper. What did the Stanford community have to say about the place of the humanities in a liberal arts education, I wondered? Working with Winston Shi, the Daily opinions editor, a colleague and I were able to help collect these short pieces.

Eavan Boland, Director of the Creative Writing Program, asked who the “new humanists” of Stanford will be.

If only 10 percent of incoming students plan to major in the humanities, why should that be taken to mean that only 10 percent are potential humanists? Why should that statistic be taken as evidence of a decline in a branch of knowledge, when it might actually be a threshold for a new beginning in it?

Boland highlighted the new joint major program that will give undergraduates the opportunity to pursue in-depth studies in both computer science and a particular humanities discipline. Rather than bracketing off the humanities from STEM fields, it’s clear that we have to think about their relationship - their points of commonality and their distinctiveness. It’s not enough to do one or the other, or to only value STEM or the humanities. It is crucial - for faculty and students alike - to recognize that grappling with a range of ideas, questions, methods, and modes of communication is critical at the undergraduate level. And we should think about this not as a way to get a first job, but as a way to be ready for and active and inquisitive life in the 21st century.

A senior history major called attention to her sense of the thriving humanities on campus:

Put simply, the question has it wrong: at Stanford, it is the humanities that are present and concrete, and it is the idea of earning potential that is ultimately nebulous. To tell a Stanford freshman that he should major in English because he can use it to write content at Pinterest in 2020 will always be a weak proposition; but to tell him he should major in English because he can hone his writing in a 10-person seminar with the former Poet Laureate of the United States is a premise ripe with possibility. The humanities at Stanford are alive because students are alive — because we seek to create and consume beauty, to communicate ideas and to understand that which is both frightening and different. It is in this present, rather than in an abstract and uncertain future, that the humanities can and will be revived.

Such a call for focusing on the details of what study in the humanities involves and who we might study with makes good sense. If high school is now greatly about getting into college, shouldn’t college be the chance to finally learn deeply? It should be. But it also has to be a place where students feel that when the opportunity arises, they have an understanding of where they are going next. College is not about job placement, but it is the institution’s responsibility to ensure that humanities students can  find real ways to pay their rent. This doesn’t mean planning to work at Google as soon as you step on campus, but it does mean taking the time and effort to reflect on what possibilities lie on the horizon. Humanities courses are, fortunately, a great way to practice serious reflection.

Following the series, an undeclared student continued the conversation with a defense of computer science as an integral part of a balanced education. He brings up an interesting point, which is that our understanding of the features of a liberal arts education are is changing.

I’m not trying to say that CS can be a substitute for humanistic inquiry, because I also strongly believe that an undergraduate education can be the perfect time to explore fundamental questions like “What is the meaning of life?” and “What does it mean to be moral?” That’s why I’m a huge fan of the new joint major programs in CS and Music and CS and English, which were discussed extensively in The Daily’s “Humanities in the 21st Century” Op-Ed Series. I believe these programs will be a wonderful option for Stanford undergraduates, _not_ because they provide an employable skill to English majors, but because they recognize _the intellectual value computer science has as a key component of a modern liberal arts education_.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, this can be a valid statement.

But what is it like to encounter such an idea at an institution where computer science doesn’t have the same kind of following, or isn’t offered at all to undergraduates? What do graduates of small liberal arts colleges where there are no computer science classes consider to be the core components of their education? Do they feel like their institutions prepare them for post-graduation life?

As soon as I begin to think about how the undergraduate study of, say, history changes at different kinds of higher ed. institutions, I can’t help but wonder how much curricular difference is visible to high school students when they are looking at colleges to attend. Stanford’s 21st century humanities might take a very different path than Swarthmore’s. What does that mean for graduates, and for the potentially widening gap between larger comprehensive universities with STEM strengths and smaller schools that don’t offer applied science and engineering programs?

Likewise, do prospective students care about how institutional resources are distributed to help them consider their futures? When I applied to college, I wanted to go somewhere I could play the violin, study French, and talk to professors about history. We’re told it is different now, but I’m not so sure that’s always true (as the senior history major above suggests).

Where will the conversation go next?