Humanities: Decline or Rebirth?

Join any dinner conversation in a typical Stanford dining hall and you are likely to find a spirited debate on topics ranging from French literature to the Fourier transform.  While it’s not hard to find a student who will talk about the humanities, it is becoming increasingly difficult task to find one who has decided to formally study them.

“I fell in love with Stanford for the program in Human Biology—but I am no pre-med,” explained Lindsey Wilder ’14 over a cup of dining hall fro-yo. “The program’s combination is perfect: its breadth in the humanities is amazing, and its biology core fulfills my parent’s definition of substantial coursework.”

But Wilder, like other students, is wary of delving too deep into her “fuzzy” side.  As a result, she is also pursuing a minor in Economics. Are the humanities in decline?

Crisis and Decline?

Stanford has placed a tremendous emphasis on the humanities, especially for freshman. The Introduction to the Humanities program (IHUM) is a year-long required curriculum for freshman, and the Program in Writing and Rhetoric’s two required classes fall within the same domain.  The university requires yet another humanities class to fulfill a General Education Requirement, and the Education for Citizenship requirements are certainly skewed toward the humanities as well.

More than twenty of Stanford’s sixty-nine possible majors are in the humanities.  Unlike universities like SUNY-Albany, Stanford has managed to protect its humanities and language programs from budget cuts (with the notable exception of the Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities major).

The number of students in programs across the university has not changed dramatically in the last few years.  A comparison of the number of majors between 2004-2005 and 2008-2009 from the registrar’s office shows that the number of majors in the School of Engineering and the School of Humanities and Sciences has remained roughly equal.  Changes do exist at the program level: classics more than doubled from 18 to 40 majors, while philosophy decreased by a third from 49 to 33 majors. But these variations are typical and are not indicative of any truly long-term changes.

Why then the talk of decline and “crisis”?

Transforming Humanities Education

“Humanists love a crisis,” Jennifer Summit says in an early-morning interview in Margaret-Jacks Hall, “Defense is the mode in which we work best.”

Summit, the Chair of Stanford’s top-ranked English Department, has been recently attracting attention for the department’s new core curriculum.

The English program has not required a core since 1967, instead opting for distribution requirements based around particular cultures and eras (American Literature before 1850, for example).  Cores were eliminated not only within humanities programs, but also as general university requirements.

What is to be included in the core, and what should be left out?  The debate was irreconcilable during the culture wars of the 1980s, but there is growing interest in bringing the format back.

“Many of the disciplines are moving away from the coverage model,” Summit explained. “The patchwork quilt approach doesn’t work to give students a full picture.”

Louis Menand, a professor at Harvard, recently discussed the difficulties of establishing a core undergraduate curriculum in a notable book, The Marketplace of Ideas. Certainly, this fight is not easy—at Harvard, reforming the curriculum took almost a decade.

The change in the English department at Stanford moved at a slightly faster pace: discussions began last year about a curriculum revision, and the new core was introduced this past fall.  The emphasis is the sweep of literary history, providing a context for literature that was absent in the older curriculum.

Summit described the new core as “operating on a connection model and not a coverage model.”  By giving students a firm foundation in literary history, the department will also be able to give students more space to take electives.

“Free choice comes from knowledge,” she noted.

The department’s mission for its undergraduate program is to provide a space for intellectual energy and rigor.

“Yes, we would love to increase our majors, but more importantly, we want English to be a destination major,” said Summit. “We want the best English department for our students.”

Renewing the Conversation

The overhaul of the English curriculum is perhaps the first such transformation in Stanford’s humanities departments since the onset of the financial crisis.  Like Wilder, many students are clearly concerned about the value of their degrees.  Computer Science has experienced an 83% increase in its majors in the past two years, and the department now claims nearly one in ten undergraduate students.  Employment prospects are perhaps the most obvious reason for the increase (the difference in size of the Liberal Arts career fair and the Computer Forum is not unnoticed by students).

However, according to the School of Humanities and Sciences Dean Richard Saller, utilitarian concerns cannot be the sole determinant in building an undergraduate education,

“The humanities contributes two fundamental things to society,” he says.  “First, it teaches us to reflect about our values and the human condition. Second, it raises the aesthetic value of our lives.”

Humanities majors have come to value these goals. Emily Rials, now a senior in English, faced a dilemma during her freshman year of whether to major in English or Physics. Her English IHUM course convinced her that an English major was right for her.

Rials is currently applying to English PhD programs, but the decision to pursue a higher degree did not come easily. A 200-level course in the winter of her junior year  helped her make her choice.

“I wanted to have the kind of conversations that I was having in the class,” she said.

Rialsis not unaware of the concerns surrounding doctoral programs in the humanities.  She started conversations with faculty and graduate students to ascertain whether her interests would be best served by graduate school. In the end, she felt that the faculty was very helpful.

“People are both nurturing and pragmatic,” she said.

Toward the Future of the Humanities

For those who pursue doctoral programs in the humanities and beyond, conversations about the future of the humanities continue.  Laura Wittman, chair of undergraduate studies for Italian, foresees the humanities embarking upon a new journey, one that will focus on literary movements, eras, and trends rather than purely geographical groupings.  This interdisciplinary pattern has pushed students of literature to fulfill Ph.D. minors in fields such as art history and film studies while still focusing primarily on a national literature.  Are traditionally narrow fields now widening?

When asked about the crisis in the humanities, Wittman responded, “We have not done a very good job of making ourselves relevant to the questions around us.  Unfortunately, we’ve become somewhat defensive.”

The crisis speaks of the need for renewal and greater awareness of not only the literary world but for the contemporary one as well. What will become of the traditional canon? Some authors, regardless of their “dead white guy” status, cannot be overlooked, but other groups such as women and minorities have historically been forgotten. Wittman argues that a new canon is emerging—a more inclusive one.

The goal of the humanities is no longer to preserve the old system but to create a new one.  Boundaries between academic disciplines are blurring, and ultimately the humanities must evolve alongside a world in constant and dizzying motion.  Such changes may be just the remedy for students like Wilder who want to stake their futures on the humanities.

Editor’s Note: This is part two of three on the humanities at Stanford.  This piece focuses on student choices within the humanities, and particularly literature.  Part three will look at the future financial picture of the humanities. Part one can be seen here.

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