In 2016, Stanford announced the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program, a graduate-level scholarship to prepare a new generation of global leaders with the skills to address the increasingly complex challenges facing the world. The scholarship, with an endowment of $750 million, is the world’s largest fully endowed scholars program. After a rigorous application process, the program announced its pioneer cohort of 49 scholars who will pursue graduate degrees in 28 departments across the university. The cohort, however, has one crucial flaw. There is not a single student who will be pursuing a graduate degree in only a humanities department, which begs the question: does Stanford care about the humanities?
The humanities departments at Stanford are at the core of the university. Classes in these fields provide students with the tools for creative and critical reflection. Every day, Stanford humanities students grapple with the world’s largest questions. The fruit of their learning has been contribution to renowned scholarship on everything from Renaissance French literature to the philosophy of language. Studying a humanities discipline involves moving beyond the search for the immediate and pragmatic; it opens one to the examination of the entirety of the human condition and examines complex moral issues.
The lack of representation of the humanities in the inaugural class of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program presents a severe deficiency in the cohort: it neglects to include an important perspective that can only come from a student of the humanities. The cohort is expected to “think globally and recognize their responsibility toward civic engagement,” yet does not include students who devote their entire study to these very questions. Having a cohort entirely composed of students in STEM or from Stanford’s professional schools means that these students are ill-positioned to engage in meaningful dialogue about the questions they’re told to go off and solve.
Rather than prioritizing an array of modes of thought and diversity in perspective, the selection committee seems to be placing added value on departments that pay, over those that may be elemental (English, history, philosophy, for example) but not “profitable.” Moreover, the lack of representation exacerbates the stereotype that Stanford is a STEM school. The cohort is further dividing techie and fuzzie students, instead of encouraging collaboration between them. There is one student enrolled in a PhD in the history department, but she is also pursuing a JD. The fact remains that the Knight-Hennessy committee select not a single candidate who expressed the concrete desire to study the humanities.
The Knight-Hennessy program should ruminate on the precedent it has set and must be sure to truly include a range of disciplines in their next cohort. Even if Stanford chooses to prioritize Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) subjects, and professional degrees over fields in the humanities, Stanford must not discount the priceless role that the liberal arts play in our technological world. Humanities students can help apply new tools with contextualization, consideration, and introspection to the greatest problems of human civilization. The Knight-Hennessy program should endeavor to combat society’s growing apathy towards the humanities. Likewise, Stanford should do more to ensure and affirm a diversity of perspectives within the cohort. The first step, however, is including at least one humanities student in a program that is meant to place Stanford’s present and future preeminence on a pedestal.