Life After IHUM

Why did Stanford’s former humanities core fail and degenerate into Thinking Matters?

The humanities give us tremendous insights into human nature and teach a healthy skepticism with which we can critically approach significant questions. From learning about the World of Forms that governs abstract ideas and their material embodiments in Plato’s Symposium, to examining different philosophers’ conceptions of virtue and goodness, to questioning our views on truth and beauty and ethics, studying the humanities is extremely valuable to leading a meaningful life.

The humanities at Stanford have increasingly been fading, thanks to Stanford’s location in Silicon Valley, the rise of tech startups, and the national trend towards vocationally-driven majors. In an attempt to remedy this problem, Stanford has undertaken a number of initiatives lately to make the humanities more popular, from constructing a humanities-themed dorm to introducing joint CS and humanities majors. Yet these changes only superficially address our de-emphasized humanities. The Humanities House is still merely a residence hall, while CS+Humanities is effectively just a double major. These additions give some students the option of engaging with the humanities more in different ways, but do not give all students a robust foundation in the humanities, which is critical to all students’ intellectual flourishing in college and beyond.

At Stanford, students can graduate without a single humanities class. This stems from the steady dissolution of a required humanities core for undergraduates since the early twentieth century. The core underwent many iterations throughout Stanford history until it finally disappeared. There were two periods where the core was comprised of all texts from the Western canon (Western Civilization, 1935-1969 and Western Culture, 1980-1987). Each of these cores was dismantled due to protests about their Eurocentrism. After Western Culture the core became Cultures, Ideas, and Values (CIV), which lasted from 1989-1997 and included more multicultural texts and narratives from historically-marginalized groups.

The last semblance of a humanities core was the Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) program, which lasted from 1997 to 2012. The program was housed in the School of Humanities & Sciences and consisted of three quarters of a 4-unit IHUM class per quarter. Fall quarter courses were interdisciplinary, while winter and spring courses focused on a specific humanities discipline. Students attended lectures as well as twice-weekly discussion sections led by postdoctoral teaching fellows. The reading list ranged from three to over five books, depending on the course.

IHUM sounded commendable in theory, yet suffered from structural problems that led to its ultimate demise. There were three main criticisms. First, the three-quarter duration was too large a commitment. Second, the curriculum was too broad. Finally, lectures were too large, and the quality of sections was unable to counterbalance poor student engagement. According to the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford University (SUES) conducted in 2012, these criticisms – and the resulting overwhelming student dissatisfaction – can be traced to “the university’s failure to communicate a clear and compelling rationale for the requirement”.

The principal criticism of IHUM, and the most common complaint that the SUES Report notes, was that the three-quarter commitment took up a great deal of space in freshmen’s schedules and left little space for academic exploration. IHUM was seen as a burdensome requirement that students had to put up with until they became sophomores. The university governance in charge of IHUM and freshman education treated it as the central course around which students had to design their schedules, and students received notifications at the beginning of enrollment reminding them that their IHUM course should be the centerpiece of their arrangements. Students with especially unit-intensive degree goals, such as plans for double-majoring, had an especially hard time balancing other courses with their requirements for IHUM.

Students also had to take a PWR writing requirement alongside IHUM, but there was little to no backlash against PWR since, as the report concedes, students clearly understood PWR’s value in improving their writing skills. Stanford was not clear enough in defining why it was required that all freshmen take such an extensive, three-quarter humanities sequence, a program whose benefits (improving students’ capacity for humanistic inquiry) were not readily apparent, since much of the humanities deals with abstractions. The university should have a compelling reason for such requirements, so that students know what they are getting into and are motivated to devote the necessary time and energy to a requirement that, from a utilitarian perspective, is taking away from other activities in which they could partake.

Our current curriculum which replaced IHUM, Thinking Matters (THINK), offers around 40 courses each year that are not as rooted in the classical humanities fields (literature, philosophy, history) but have much more variety and include non-humanities classes. Courses range from “The Science of Mythbusters” to “The Language of Food” to “The Spirit of Democracy” and, broadly speaking, import more practical content that can appeal to all students rather than adhere to pure humanities.

THINK attempts to remedy the problem of a humanities requirement that is too extensive by only lasting one quarter. This is a drastic reduction from three quarters to only one and reflects the university caving into students’ desires for flexibility and a minimal humanities general education requirement. One quarter is not enough because in this manner, it is easy for the THINK class to be treated as any other 4-unit class, rather than as part of a lifelong journey in the humanities that builds skills in humanistic and analytical inquiry.

The second criticism of IHUM was that its curriculum was too broad. IHUM was the result of multiple decades of student protests during the 1970s and late 1980s over the predominance of the Western canon in the humanities core. The IHUM curriculum strived to provide a broad survey of the historical and literary traditions of the world, and as a result, students received breadth but not enough depth. Teachers could not focus their instruction and readings on just a single canon or tradition; rather, they had to find a way to synthesize the literature and philosophies of different cultural traditions, which often did not have obvious connections.

Although IHUM’s curriculum was broad in terms of the canons it represented, it still adhered to the humanities entirely. THINK, on the other hand, represents much more diverse fields. While the governance of IHUM was placed upon the School of Humanities & Sciences, THINK is more flexible. It allows students to gain some form of a liberal arts grounding without having to necessarily take classical humanities classes (although some classes, such as “The Art of Living”, are certainly very humanistic compared to others). In the SUES Report’s initial description of THINK, the authors declare that “Courses should be organized around a major idea, question, or problem of general interest, rather than as introductory surveys of some disciplinary field, and they should be oriented toward the specific needs of freshman learners. But beyond these expectations, the limits on these courses are fully as capacious as the imaginations of our faculty.”

One negative consequence of such a high degree of flexibility is that faculty are not united under a common vision, and take their teaching in whichever way they so choose. Additionally, “the specific needs of freshman learners” can be difficult to gauge or generalize. A curriculum that melds together different parts from different fields can neglect skills essential to humanistic inquiry, in an attempt to teach a certain skill or focus too much on interdisciplinary methods. Although the greater flexibility of THINK may appeal to the majority of freshmen, the program’s decreased emphasis on the humanities nonetheless reflects a worrisome growing trend in higher education of devaluing the humanities in favor of more “practical” disciplines, or of relentlessly combining the humanities with STEM fields rather than appreciating the merits of their pure, unmitigated forms.

The third main criticism of IHUM was that lecture sizes were too large. With 150 students each, classes prevented students from substantial contact with faculty. Additionally, numerous reports and articles cited shockingly low attendance numbers at lectures, demonstrating that students felt no compulsion to engage deeply with the course texts, out of a disdain for the structure and time commitment of the class itself.

Given students’ lack of interest in classes with large lectures, a necessary complement was small, focused discussion sections where students could discuss lecture material and build on their conceptual foundations. However, as one IHUM alumnus notes, “IHUM sections [were] often characterized by forced and insincere wisdom” as students, lackluster about the subject, merely tried to fit in a couple comments each section to receive a satisfactory participation grade. Discussion sections in humanities are supposed to be smaller settings where the conversation and humanistic discourse comes most alive. That IHUM sections were poor quality indicates how students did not engage deeply with humanistic thought. This was perhaps because they were disenchanted by having to endure a stringent requirement, or perhaps because the sheer volume of content made sections themselves impossible to ask and answer meaningful questions. Students seemed to be more concerned with how to achieve a good grade in IHUM by doing minimal work than in engaging with the course content.

THINK follows a similar lecture/discussion section format as IHUM, but lecture sizes are generally smaller, since each student is only enrolled for one quarter rather than three. About one-third of the freshman class is enrolled in a THINK class each quarter, rather than everyone in the freshman class (minus those students in SLE) as was the case with IHUM. In this sense, THINK has succeeded in reducing lecture sizes, which enables students to more easily form substantial relationships with faculty.

Nonetheless, this positive attribute of THINK does not compensate for its other shortcomings: its decreased emphasis on the merits of the pure humanities, and its insufficient one-quarter commitment that fails to give students a strong enough grounding in the humanities. IHUM may have left a sour impression of humanistic inquiry in students who went through the program. But Thinking Matters replaced the humanities survey course with a weak attempt to discuss practical content, merged with some semblance of the humanities. Moving on will require a willingness to tackle the structural failures of IHUM, to ensure that Stanford’s next humanities requirement is built to last.

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