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Building an Education That Won't Wear Out

Study of the humanities remains the cornerstone of Stanford's undergraduate curriculum.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

By John Hennessy

In recent years, the stretch of Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose has become the vehicular backbone of Silicon Valley. It is not surprising, then, that this ribbon of concrete has sprouted a cottage industry of billboards advertising the latest marvels of the technological revolution--Internet companies, new business ventures, software and hardware solutions.

Recently, one of these billboards captured my attention. Here's what it said: "FORGET FRENCH! Teach your child how to read ticker..."

As in "stock ticker."

It wasn't very clear what product this billboard was advertising, but its intent was obvious. It urged parents to replace the time-honored tradition of learning a foreign language with the more immediately profitable study of the language of Wall Street.

Perhaps the biggest problem with this billboard is that it confuses education and training. Education involves developing a passion and skill for acquiring new knowledge. Education, especially a university education, serves as a foundation for life. Learning French is an educational goal; it not only strengthens an understanding of language but provides access to a literature and culture of great beauty and complexity. Training involves the development of a skill, with the anticipation that the skill will be put to near-term use in fulfillment of a specific task. Learning to read ticker is training; if you need to learn the skill, you can learn it quickly. It isn't useful for very much else, and with technological advances it may well become unnecessary in the future. Having made that distinction, I don't mean to imply that a liberal education has no practical applications. Our new provost, John Etchemendy, is fond of pointing out that studying the humanities teaches skills that can be broadly applied, in different settings and, crucially, as the demands and expectations in life and career change.

Stanford, sitting as it does in the center of Silicon Valley, is sometimes associated with a focus on the "new new thing" as opposed to areas of intellectual exploration that are older and more complex. It is a matter of great pride, of course, that we have been so deeply involved in the birth and development of the Valley. This pivotal role, however, should not obscure our belief that the humanities must remain at the center of a great university and at the core of its undergraduate program. As I begin my tenure as president, I want to reiterate that core principle and speak to the importance of creating an even higher profile for the humanities.

When Leland and Jane Stanford set out their plans for the university, they clearly saw the interplay of the sciences and humanities as central to the endeavor. In the founding grant, they cited not only colleges, schools and mechanical institutes as appropriate for a "university of high degree," but also museums, galleries of art and seminaries of learning.

Like the Stanfords, the University's first president, David Starr Jordan, also emphasized this in his early writings on the University. "Work in applied science is to be carried out side by side with the pure sciences and humanities, and to be equally fostered," he wrote.

Maintaining this goal, given the dramatic impact of advances in science and engineering as well as the growth of outside research funding for science, has been difficult, and several of my predecessors have focused on the problem. We now have the opportunity to consolidate some of the recent advances, but I believe a further increase in support for the arts and humanities will be needed. Our real challenge, however, lies in deploying the resources in new and creative ways.

At freshman convocation this year, I told a story that I have repeated many times to prospective freshmen inclined toward science and engineering. In 1997, in my first year as dean of the Engineering School, I ran into an alumnus of our Medical School, whose son was a freshman at Stanford with a strong interest in engineering. We discussed what advice he had given his son about choosing among the universities that had offered him admission. In recommending Stanford, he said: "I wanted my son to know who Thoreau was, and what he wrote about."

This story embodies much of what is at the core of a Stanford education: a strong and shared foundation in the humanities. I hope to strengthen this cornerstone during my presidency. And although I have no plans to put up a billboard, if I did, it would have two sides. One side might read "Understand DNA. Learn how computers work. Explore relativity. Come to Stanford." The other might read: "Learn French . . . and Chinese! Read Thoreau. Explore Art. Come to Stanford." This two-sided billboard would celebrate the breadth of excellence we have at Stanford and the unique opportunities we offer to our undergraduates.

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