Balancing the Books

Universities across the country are asking what place the humanities have in the modern university and whether they should have any at all. Financial cuts to the humanities have been debilitating around the world. What is the future of the humanities at Stanford?

Financing the Humanities at Stanford

By some quantitative measures, the humanities are among the most successful departments at Stanford. Since 2003, there have been more faculty appointments in the humanities than in the natural sciences or engineering, according to Richard Saller, dean of the humanities and sciences (H&S).

Instead of applying cuts to the humanities, Saller wants to expand the school. “Stanford is very Euro-centric despite its Pacific-Rim specialty,” he said. “It is important for Stanford students to see Europe, but also the great products of these other civilizations.”

While the school will not be creating new departments, he hopes to expand the number of faculty working in more global subjects. Saller noted the recent appointment of a faculty member in Persian Literature, as well as the creation of a seminar on South Asian drama.

A big part of this expansion depends upon alumni donations though. The Stanford Challenge, a $4.3 billion fundraising drive which is now entering its final year, will endow chairs through its international and arts initiatives. However, alumni reactions to the changes within the humanities department have been mixed.

Saller noted that some people are not convinced of the need for deep language learning. “With some people it’s easy, with others it is hard,” he said.

Ultimately, the success of the humanities at Stanford depends on the number of students enrolled, an increasingly uncertain variable.

President John Hennessy opened the last Faculty Senate meeting by discussing the declining student interest in the humanities. With only 10% of undergraduates expressing interest in the humanities, he and the faculty are concerned that the humanities may be pushed out of the Stanford education.

Humanities Courses at Stanford Today

However, Stanford is still trying to find ways to adapt its educational program to build more support for the humanities. Hennessy cited Structured Liberal Education (SLE) as Stanford’s most successful humanities program and suggested its replication or expansion.

Students who participate in SLE have been enthusiastic about the course. “The things we discussed [in SLE] were questions that are essential to human existence and that every person should try to engage with more concretely,” said Lilian Rogers ’13.

The program’s small size and residential setting facilitates meaningful conversations in and out of class.

“Not everyone really wants to talk about philosophy or literature, but in SLE you always know that that’s an okay dinner conversation,” said Rogers.

SLE is a well-constructed haven for the liberal arts, and most importantly, it is filled with willing members of an intellectual community rather than reticent students forced to sit in a large lecture hall.

The School of H&S has been increasingly concerned with creating meaningful classes that don’t create such reluctant students. Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, is working on building a series of interdisciplinary courses centered around the concept of “big ideas.” Such classes would be designed to engage students in important issues while acting as a potential gateway to further coursework in the humanities.

An integral component to attracting students to any field is the faculty. Professor Jennifer Summit, the chair of the English department, is aware of the influence that professors have over a student’s academic choices. She has seen Stanford shift towards “a very sincere, passionate and dedicated culture of teaching.”

“There is a lot of room for creative thinking and new initiatives in how we train grad students as teachers,” said Summit.

However, real classroom experience is still scarce, especially for English graduate students who may teach a PWR section or TA the occasional literature course.

Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and German studies, created a group using a grant from the Teagle Foundation to bring together faculty and graduate students to discuss and revolutionize their own pedagogical practices.

The group is experimenting with innovative teaching styles and syllabi to give undergraduates practical skills commonly thought to be absent from a humanities education. The emphasis is on real-world applications of critical analysis, presentational and communicative skills, and a move towards the diversification of knowledge.****

The Economics of Humanities and the Federal Government

****The humanities have a major advantage over the sciences: the cost of scholarship in literature, history or philosophy is significantly lower than that of an engineering or physics lab. Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research, cites foundations and philanthropy as the greatest sources of revenue for humanities research.

The sciences, in contrast, are often funded by government agencies dependent on a federal budget.

“Basic discovery research has been successful because of the partnership of universities with the National Institute of Health, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense,” said Arvin. She emphasized that despite the sciences’ reliance on the federal budget, there has not been a significant decline in funding from such agencies.

For the humanities, though, that is not likely to be the case. The renewed focus on cutting the national budget is likely to affect federal humanities programs such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. For a well-endowed university like Stanford, such cuts are unlikely to be too damaging, but the same cannot be said for other institutions that rely on federal funding for a greater proportion of operating costs.

Administrators point to the difficulty of justifying the need for the humanities—projects such as cancer research will simply always be larger priorities. Science enjoys a strong bipartisan support that humanities do not have.

From Relevance to Irrelevance and Back Again

In the 1950s, area studies (a sub-division of the humanities) were heavily financed by the federal government as a national security priority. Now, funding for the humanities may well be non-existent in the next fiscal year. Why are the humanities endangered?

Part of the reason is cultural. The advent of motion pictures revolutionized the arts, and according to some, caused the demise of the written word. Today, we are saturated with images, icons, and now more than ever, video.

The immediacy of innovations such as digital photography, cell phones, and the internet have created a public impatience which often does not seem to appreciate the traditional humanities.

The other factor in the decline of the humanities is student choice. At the faculty senate meeting, a professor asked Hennessy why the university treated students as though they were not intelligent enough to choose their own field of study. Why push the liberal arts in the faces of students determined to study chemistry, engineering or physics?

Another professor added that it is time for scholars in the humanities to reconfigure the department so that the subject’s relevance is clearer.

Arvin said that the humanities need “different voices making the point that the humanities are important – I’m speaking as a philosophy major.”

The future of the humanities lies in cooperation between academic fields. It is clear to Arvin that to create lasting change outside of the university the sciences must work closely with experts in behavioral psychologists, public policy, philosophy, and communication.

Even individual labs at Stanford are filled with researchers from different fields all working together. The boundaries between departments have never been so malleable, and the intermingling of fields can be both frightening and exciting.

It is time, said Professor Summit, to “broaden the map of the higher education landscape.”

Note: This is the last part of a three part series looking at the future of the humanities.

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