Stanford and the Humanities - Get a Room Already

Time to get down with the Faculty Senate again.  Today’s agenda: working on the humanities at Stanford.

Despite our propensity for melodramatic “the humanities are dying” speeches where Dante is reduced to a video game and Shakespeare to Leonardo DiCaprio, the five-person committee composed of our very own humanities faculty (Debra Satz, Jennifer Summit, Gabriella Safran, Aron Rodrigue, Paula Findlen, and moderator David Palumbo-Liu) presented a level-headed and even optimistic plan to encourage students to study the liberal arts.  Suggestions ranged from starting a summer humanities institute for promising high schoolers, to attempting to change the stereotypical fuzzy vs. techie Stanford culture.  One misstep, I must point out, was the idea of making the entire entering freshman class sit through a lecture given by a humanities professor at the beginning of the year.  NYU made me do that and nobody was really feeling it.

Jennifer Summit, chair of the English Department, described the new major requirements one of which is an introductory course which lasts three quarters and is team-taught by two professors.  It spans the dawn of literacy up until about five minutes ago and sounded like a class that could be good and perhaps a little intense.  She pointed out that it isn’t a survey course but… yeah, it pretty much sounds like one.  But hey, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with survey courses!  They can be as contemporary and provocative as they want, it is merely a matter of professors and students not letting themselves be pushed around by the traditional canon.  I took an introductory class on Italian Medieval and Renaissance literature my freshman year and later that semester I declared an Italian major, so there.  Survey course wins.

Other ideas included research opportunities for grads and undergrads, more active liberal arts recruiting at the undergraduate level, and finally breaking the stereotype that the humanities major will never get you a job.  Despite all of these interesting plans to reinvigorate the humanities, the largest obstacle is the culture surrounding a liberal arts education – a point not lost on the Senate.  Little about a B.A. in English is pre-professional, yet it does not limit a student’s future to the extent that society at large likes to think.  Dr. Ann Aarvin, Dean of Research, and oh yeah, a real doctor of medicine, got her B.A. in philosophy. Things like Symbolic Systems work to bridge the gap between the “useful” majors and the “useless” ones and this interdisciplinary approach really does seem to be the future of academia. (Side note: I really hate jumping on the interdisciplinary bandwagon because I feel like a conformist, but it’s too late, I’ve gone too far.)   However, we can’t see computer science courses as *redeeming *the philosophy ones, instead these disciplines work together, they are a complicated approach to real-world problems which traditional modes of thinking cannot grasp.

With that said, everyone should read the classics before attempting this crazy intermingling of fields.  The point is that we still need foundations, they just may look different than before, and we’re going to use our knowledge (which mind you includes but is not limited to traditional canons and fields) in innovative and exciting ways.

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