Increasing Humanities Requirements Demonstrates A Double Standard

Increasing Humanities Requirements Demonstrates A Double Standard

If Stanford students truly believe in the value of a comprehensive education, they should require it of humanities majors as well as engineers.

“Introduction to International Relations,” “The Syntax of English,” “Sleep and Dreams,” and “Questions of Clay” (a ceramics class). A Stanford humanities major can fulfill all of the university’s math and science-related graduation requirements by taking these classes. Can the university truly claim to offer a multidisciplinary liberal arts education when hard math and science classes can be so easily bypassed?

As the proportion of STEM students at Stanford has risen in recent years, so have cries to educate STEM students about the humanities. Most recently, the Stanford Review’s proposal of a two-quarter Western civilization requirement has sparked intense discussion on campus about Stanford’s humanities core. Although opinions differ about what this requirement should look like, most agree that STEM majors ought to have a more robust humanities education.

While I support stronger humanities education for STEM students, there seems to be a lack of dialogue about the converse: STEM education for humanities majors (and, to a lesser degree, social science majors). There is a double standard here. Engineering majors who don’t read the New York Times or take little interest in Plato are labeled as unintellectual, uninformed robots. Yet, it’s socially acceptable (and almost expected) for humanities majors to complain about math or to dismiss computer science classes beyond 106A as completely beyond them. Few seem bothered that a humanities student can easily graduate from Stanford without taking a rigorous math, science, or engineering class.

Stanford has three STEM-related WAYS requirements. Applied & Quantitative Reasoning can be fulfilled by classes such as “Introduction to International Relations” and “Introduction to Comparative Politics.” Scientific Method & Analysis is completed with “Sleep and Dreams,” “Questions of Clay” (essentially a ceramics class), “Energy Options for the 21st Century,” or “Phonetics.” “Thinking Strategically,” “The Syntax of English,” and “Introduction to Phonology” satisfy Formal Reasoning. While these classes may certainly be informative and worthwhile, none of them are rigorous enough to fulfill major requirements for the hard sciences or engineering.

Why does this matter? More rigorous math and science classes equip students with different tools to understand the world. By focusing only on the humanities, students learn to deeply appreciate human culture but neglect to understand the natural world.

Advocates of a humanities core often champion the idea of a liberal education, intended to open students’ minds by broadly educating them about the world. If we truly want Stanford students to receive a broad liberal education, however, then we should require rigorous courses in both the humanities and STEM. Since the basic goal of math and the natural sciences is to understand the world around us, these disciplines ought to be a fundamental to a liberal education.
 The ability to think about the world in different ways is central to a liberal education. If we argue that STEM students develop intellectually by grappling with ideas about government in Plato’s Republic, then, by the same logic, humanities students should benefit from being exposed to the logical rigor and systematic methods of inquiry behind STEM disciplines.

Moreover, according to its mission statement, Stanford aims to educate students who have “direct usefulness in life” and “promote the public welfare”. A basic knowledge of science and engineering is necessary to fulfill this mission, so that students can understand and impact important world issues. For example, basic engineering principles are key to predicting how technology progresses and formulating intelligent policies to both foster and regulate these changes. Making energy policy requires a knowledge of the science behind our energy sources. And so much of our understanding of any issue, from political polls to scientific studies, is based on statistics that it is short-sighted and dangerous to rely on them without understanding how this data is collected and generated.

STEM knowledge is even critical to international relations: while negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran last summer, Republicans and Democrats alike relied heavily on scientific insights from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, a former MIT physics professor. We often worry about engineers building technology without considering societal implications. So why aren’t we scared by thought leaders and policymakers blindly directing our societies without understanding the scientific principles or engineering challenges behind the ideas they champion?

This article does not propose changes to Stanford’s STEM requirements, but it does raise a challenge. If we advocate for a stronger humanities core, it is only fair that we examine the amount of math and science in the curriculum of humanities students, too.

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