It was the second day of NSO. Over one hundred freshmen vied for seats in the packed lecture hall to learn about Academic Planning for the Humanities. The idea was that “Faculty will introduce you to the range of humanities offerings at Stanford and offer valuable tips on how to choose courses and explore potential majors.”
The subsequent presentation, however, barely mentioned any humanities classes. Instead, I learned about how much money philosophy majors might expect to make in fifty years, how miserable the speaker’s wife found organic chemistry, and why engineers stand to benefit from English classes. A few minutes were spent on the new humanities core curriculum, organic chemistry was once again dismissed, and we were sent out to select our courses.
I walked out of that presentation deeply confused. I am quite passionate about the humanities—I chose to take Structured Liberal Education (SLE) this year, and have pursued both English and journalism in the past. However, I am also enthusiastic about biology and enrolled in Chemistry 31A. Instead of feeling inspired to pursue the humanities, I came out unsettled as to their place at Stanford. Even the humanities website exudes defensiveness: two of the four headlines read “Why do the humanities matter?” and “How can I support the humanities at Stanford?” I noticed no appeals to support computer science on the engineering website, or, indeed, assertions that the topic matters.
This is not to say that any defense of the humanities is misguided. Indeed, it should be common practice for all departments to consider what their purpose is carefully, and communicate it to prospective students effectively. According to Joshua Landy, director of SLE, “There’s nothing wrong in people defending the virtues of what they do. Each branch of humanities has its own tradition of explaining why it’s worth bothering—beginning with Aristotle and philosophy.”
However, there is a major difference between explaining the humanities’ virtues and fighting off nebulous opponents—from organic chemists to Silicon Valley recruiters. Instead of opening humanities discussions with a projection of salaries, we should remember what attracts students to the humanities in the first place: a desire to grapple with some of the questions that have pierced humans for thousands of years, to express themselves through writing and understand the lives and minds of those who came before us. We should enter humanities classes filled with awe and curiosity, and not dilute these values with misguided ideas of economic incentive.
There is something paradoxical about Stanford having one of the best humanities departments in the world and the perception that these departments ailing beasts on the verge of extinction. As Jeff Schwegman, Humanities Initiatives Coordinator, puts it, “what’s sort of tragic is that our humanities departments are really renowned. We just can’t escape from the national pigeonhole stereotype of a Silicon Valley incubator.” Perhaps one method of escaping is not to frame humanities classes as props for engineers but to emphasize their individual value.
The skills and questions raised by humanities classes transcend all majors. Computer Science professor Eric Roberts taught in 16 different departments over the course of his 26-year tenure at Stanford. In his experience co-teaching an interdisciplinary Thinking Matters course, “Tech Visions of Utopia,” students who at first resented the class as a requirement often came to appreciate it, telling him “on day one that they were unhappy to be there, but they weren’t unhappy by day 24. What they realize is that there’s some piece of their creativity that isn’t answered completely in STEM. My goal was that students come to understand that they can be not only better technologists but citizens as well.”
What drew students to Roberts’ course or SLE wasn’t a drive to get high-paying jobs or ultimately work at Facebook as ethical analysts, but rather human curiosity. It is in these classes that students are allowed to ask unanswerable questions, and then venture to answer them—going out on the same shaky and exhilarating limb that all great thinkers have explored. This exhilaration and exploration should be at the center of any discussion of the humanities. By trying to align themselves with STEM and Silicon Valley salaries, the humanities risk losing touch with the quintessentially human spark from which they were born.