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Who Needs the Humanities at 'Start-Up U'?

Stanford says everyone does, and wants to convince the world.


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By Mike Antonucci

Freshman Saya Jenks comes from nearby Menlo Park, but she admits to having initially misjudged Stanford when weighing college choices. She had the Farm pegged as an imperfect place for someone with her interests, which start with theater. When two friends who were a year ahead of her in high school picked the University for its humanities programs, her main reaction was skepticism. “I thought it was such an engineering school,” Jenks says. Then came the revelations.

First, she signed up for a live audition in drama as an arts supplement to her application and landed in front of Dan Klein, ’90, who teaches improvisation in the drama department as well as holding classes and workshops at the Graduate School of Business and the Not only was that one session “the most fun I’ve ever had at an audition,” notes Jenks, it was a conversion experience. “What Klein showed me is people bringing all kinds of knowledge to the humanities and arts, and it made me think about exploring interests that I might not even know I’ve got.” Jenks felt some bonus gusto when she saw the Stanford Drama and Blackstage Theater Company production of The Color Purple and “was just blown away.”  
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
'THE HUMANITIES are of special benefit for young people searching to understand themselves.' -- Debra Satz, Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts

Other freshmen tell similar stories about having to overcome the impression that Stanford is where you go if you like software better than seminars. That’s understandable, when media reports regularly underscore Stanford’s image as a technological Eden for geeks and entrepreneurs spawning start-ups in dorm rooms. For Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, it amounts to typecasting Stanford as “the MIT of the West”—regardless of the Farm’s No. 1 spot in Times Higher Education’s 2011-12 World University Rankings of arts and humanities programs.

The number of students majoring in Stanford’s humanities departments has declined by at least 25 percent in the past two decades. English and history, among the five most popular majors not so many years ago, have been eclipsed by computer science, human biology, engineering and economics. Only 10 to 18 percent of the University’s undergraduate applicants indicate a primary interest in the humanities. And while 43 to 45 percent of the School of Humanities and Sciences faculty are devoted to the humanities, some courses top out at five students—or fewer.

“So many students are not engaging significantly with what the humanities have to offer, except in a purely instrumental way—choosing the classes that get the general education requirements out of the way and fit into their schedule, which is determined by their other interests,” Satz says. And that’s a problem. “Studying the humanities—deeply engaging with other societies, with other ways of seeing and ways of doing—is important for living in a globalized world. If the humanities become marginal in our undergraduate education, then an important tool we have for understanding the lives of others will be lost.”

At the same time, Stanford can’t ignore the pressures of a wider national context in which students make their choices. In this era of anxiety about graduates finding jobs, the humanities are the subject of an intense debate about relevance and value. In short, humanities majors are suspected of having no “real” or marketable skills. While that notion is given little credence at Stanford, the stigma it can generate is taken seriously. If nothing else, the denigration of the humanities as cloistered or pretentious plays havoc with students’ psyches. Add to that a nationwide push to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics as the key to America’s future well-being—along with buzz about resurgent prospects in the tech sector—and humanities can be a tough sell.

THE RESPONSE of Stanford philosophers, historians and literary scholars has been to saddle up and ride into the fray. The University has launched a number of initiatives to highlight what the humanities offer in both pragmatic and inspirational ways, to strengthen the preparation they provide for careers beyond academia and, ultimately, to position Stanford as a leader in the humanities debates to come.

One innovation begun this year is the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute, which recruited 50 high school students from around the country and beyond for three weeks of university-level coursework. For Stanford, it was an opportunity to showcase compelling lecturers, powerful topics and the campus itself—an experience aimed at shouting, Hello, this is such a different place than you thought it was. The ultimate success of humanities “camp” may not be clear for several years, but Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French and by courtesy history and one of the two faculty lecturers, says he encountered students who embraced the work so avidly that “they wildly surpassed all of our expectations.”

Photo: Glenn Matsumura
DAN EDELSTEIN, Associate Professor of French and by courtesy History

Behind that payoff was extensive planning. Recruitment letters went out to carefully targeted high schoolers across the nation. Satz, a philosophy professor, composed a separate letter for 500 New York students who might think of Stanford as another planet, essentially saying she had been “a kid from the New York City public schools who got here and actually liked it.” The institute was fee-based but offered significant financial aid, and it was organized with the help of Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies.

Satz says the commitment made by Edelstein and history professor Caroline Winterer was particularly notable. “What’s unusual,” she explains, “is that we had faculty teaching these sessions, not grad students or adjuncts. . . . Two fantastic teaching faculty.”

The inaugural institute had two classes, Edelstein’s Revolutions and Winterer’s The Age of Jefferson. “I think next year we’ll expand,” says Satz. “I want to have a philosophy class. I think philosophy has a natural constituency, because it’s not offered in high school and a lot of students really want to do something like that.”

For enrolled students, Satz is working to establish a more deliberate curricular framework. “Students don’t often know what’s an intro-level course and what isn’t,” she observes, in comparison to non-humanities departments with sequential courses along the lines of Science 31, then 32, then 33. “There’s a narrative arc. The humanities kind of gave that up at some point. It’s a little bit of the ’60s—it’s like you could enter anywhere and take anything and there’s no order. And so the students feel like, oh, that just shows there’s no knowledge.”

To remedy that, humanities departments are devising introductory courses. Also in the pipeline is promotional material to give undergrads a capsule view of what different humanities disciplines are all about, in method and wisdom. The upshot, Satz hopes, will be a better articulation of humanities scholarship and a way to address such questions as, “What has philosophy produced that’s worth knowing?”

Administrators also recognize the need to adapt to evolving technologies and expectations. The humanities weren’t represented in the 16 free online courses announced by Stanford for the fall, so Dean of Humanities and Sciences Richard Saller says he’ll encourage some of his faculty members to participate. He acknowledges that it’s unclear how professors can incorporate and assess the written, oral and visual work of humanities subjects as part of a massively enrolled course. Even so, he insists, “We need to take some initiative for online education.”

Colin Milburn, ’98, MA ’99, is the founding director of the Humanities Innovation Lab at UC-Davis and credits Stanford with the right kind of institutional mindset. “Stanford has been at the forefront of discussions about the future of the humanities for a long time now, in terms of curriculum as well as research,” he says, adding that the University’s “extraordinary capacities” in individual disciplines underlie such interdisciplinary innovations as environmental humanities, cultural studies of science and technology, and the digital humanities.

“Recently, I’ve been seeing amazing things happen when humanists work together with social scientists, natural scientists and engineers, each bringing unique resources and tools to the table . . . in order to solve shared problems,” Milburn says. “This seems a very promising trend to me, and Stanford has certainly been playing a prominent role here.”

One upside to whatever Stanford humanities take on is the core stability of their operations. Donor support and faculty recruitment have been strong, notes Saller, buttressed by the Arts Initiative and new buildings that include the Bing Concert Hall.

PHOTO: Glenn Matsumura
'WE CLEARLY have a lot to do in the way of building the perception of our reputation in this area.' -- Richard Saller, Dean of Humanities and Sciences

As for turning around the perception that Stanford is mainly for techies, “I feel justified hope,” Saller says.

Certainly, Stanford has been a base for high-profile advocates for the humanities. For example, a September forum on campus made a vigorous case for the significant role of the humanities in national defense and international policy. The discussion, organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and led by Stanford President John Hennessy, featured numerous accounts of how humanities-honed skills can help shape world events.

Political science professor and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed the way humanities and social sciences cultivate people’s writing abilities: “Those of us who have been, for instance, in government—where a lot of my students want to end up—know that the well argued, well written two-pager [put] before the secretary of defense or the secretary of state can actually make a difference, let alone one before the president of the United States. It can make a difference in decision making.”

Other participants included Hoover Institution senior fellow William J. Perry, ’49, MS ’50, a former U.S. secretary of defense, and Hoover distinguished fellow George P. Shultz, whose four different U.S. cabinet posts included secretary of state. Marine Sgt. William Treseder, ’11, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that in many difficult situations a young platoon leader’s education in subjects such as foreign languages or history—“just something that lets them understand another person’s perspective”—can end up being “absolutely crucial.”

At that event, an appreciation for the humanities seemed fundamental to Stanford’s DNA—as if the University is such a humanities school. But outside similar forums and lectures, there’s often a much different perception. The alternative view, Stanford as technopolis, is easily delineated by a standard 21st-century guidepost: the search engine. 

Indeed, Saller recalls that in 2010 he Googled “Harvard humanities,” “Yale humanities,” “Stanford humanities,” and got 4 million sites for Harvard; 3 million for Yale and; 300,000 for Stanford. For “Stanford engineering,” it was 25 million. “So there is a huge, order-of-magnitude gap between reputations if you just use that as a rough yardstick. We clearly have a lot to do in the way of building the perception of our reputation in this area. But that’s a hard thing to do. University reputations have notorious inertia associated with them.”

Dogged, incremental effort is essential to long-term progress but includes an occasional exciting triumph. A case in point is the return to Stanford this fall of art and art history professor Alexander Nemerov, who taught at Stanford for nine years before going to Yale in 2001. When the Yale Daily News reported his hiring by Stanford in February, it pointed out that his introductory course on the history of art was the hottest of the semester, capped at 270 students but with interest indicated by nearly 500.

“It’s just really telling,” notes Saller, for Nemerov “to move back from Yale, which is thought to be the bastion of the humanities.”

Underlying almost every aspect of Stanford’s humanities conversation is a tense duality: A college education is not supposed to be job preparation, but it’s understandable to worry that it isn’t. “I want students to pick the things they love to do,” says Kirsti Copeland,  the director of residentially based advising. “And in order to do that comfortably, they need to feel like that isn’t a dead end.”

Satz is one among many who have been pounding home that point. “You can major in French and still have a completely different career,” she argues. Central to her case is that a bachelor’s degree from the humanities doesn’t have to be—and for most Stanford students probably isn’t—a concluding degree. Take classics or linguistics or music, then consider business school, law school or med school. “The humanities are a foundation for anything.”

The benefits Satz is most eloquent in championing range from individual blooms, like confidence and creativity, to a societal flowering. “The humanities are of special benefit for young people searching to understand themselves. They expose us to the ideas and practices central to our own society as well as to alternative ideas within our society and without. And they provide the vocabulary for posing the big questions about truth, justice, responsibility, beauty, among others that should be a core part of a university education.”

PHOTO: Glenn Matsumura
'...IF WE SET A STANDARD that is so expensive that others can't meet it, we're going to drive them out of the business.' -- Russell Berman, Professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature

ONE OF THE MOST OBVIOUS CHALLENGES for Stanford in the national humanities context is the anxiety felt by graduate students. As the humanities elsewhere face increasing pressure to justify their expense versus science and technology programs, the number of jobs opening for newly minted professors is scant. People spend their 20s immersed in unique or specialized research studies and it leads to—where? Russell Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature, has become a national voice for an intrepid remedy: reformulating the route to a humanities PhD.

“Last I looked,” says Berman, “the time to degree for a PhD in literature—it’s slightly different for English and the foreign languages—nationally is nine years. . . . We should cut that in half nationally. I think five years is absolutely doable. Four years is not unthinkable.”

The stipends, tuition waivers, fellowships and grants for graduate programs are backed by Stanford’s overall financial strength. But Berman is passionate in warning about the possible downside of the University’s strong position.

“Not everybody,”  he says, “can afford what Stanford or Princeton or Harvard can afford. And if we set a standard that is so expensive that others can’t meet it, we’re going to drive them out of the business. And then we’ll just be a small, elite group with no democratic access to advanced study in the humanities. . . . Stanford should alternatively lead toward a reform agenda that keeps the humanities accessible and affordable nationwide.”

Berman’s message, part of a proposal he wrote with five colleagues, has yet to elicit a PhD-revision plan from any individual department. But Saller says more discussion is to come. And, Berman’s group has a second angle to their recommendations: revamping the humanities PhD “as preparation for multiple career tracks, not exclusively the reproduction of the professoriate.”

Recognizing that those with humanities doctorates can and do move capably into nonacademic jobs, says Berman, should also mean enhancing the process. Visiting speakers should include PhD holders who transitioned into industry or commerce. Internships should be arranged in diverse enterprises. Curricula should be bolstered with practical knowledge from fields such as publishing, film and journalism. “Right now,” Berman says, graduate students exit academia for other professions “by the seat of their pants.” It’s time “to recognize that it’s a good thing they do that and therefore integrate that back into our teaching.”

Putting brain to grindstone in this arena is Anaïs Saint-Jude, founder and director of the BiblioTech program at Stanford that’s dedicated to expanding the range of opportunities for PhDs. Saint-Jude, MA ’03, PhD ’11, kick-started her initiative in May 2011, while still a grad student in French literature. She led the first of now annual conferences that serve as formal mixers for humanities scholars and Silicon Valley executives. She has funding from a variety of University offices, including the president’s, and her mission is persuasion: convincing businesses that people with PhDs make strong employees.

“I have to say it’s still slow,” she notes. “In large, stratified organizations particularly, they still find it a challenge to see where a PhD in humanities fits in. But we have to be undaunted.” She more than understands the tensions on the students’ side—she has been there. “Unfortunately, humanities PhD students do have to wrestle with substantial amounts of stress, knowing they are preparing for jobs that may not exist or may not be what they imagined.”

Saint-Jude has three primary goals for the next year: bolster the BiblioTech website by highlighting individual success stories; establish a set of internships with local companies; and coordinate networking events and workshops with the Humanities Center and other University units.

On another front, English professor Jennifer Summit, one of Berman’s co-authors on the PhD-revision proposal, has been supervising a journalism project for humanities graduate students. Students can get paid to write about humanities research for Stanford’s News Service and its Human Experience website. The practice in writing for a mass audience instead of specialized fellow scholars can be eye-opening, and the attention created for interesting research is a plus.

Another initiative at a very incipient stage is an effort by Satz to partner with the School of Education to provide a path for someone obtaining a humanities PhD to earn a teaching credential. 

PHOTO: Glenn Matsumura
JENNIFER SUMMIT, Professor of English

“The humanities have always been about education as a powerful agent of change­—true to their roots in the Renaissance, which made teaching and learning the foundation of civil society,” Summit says. “So it’s appropriate that they continue to shape higher education of the future, especially given the central role that humanities skills—like communication and critical, informed discussion—will play in our changing world.”

STANFORD'S ARTS INITIATIVE is expected to be a lure for students from the full range of humanities interests. Its signature components are new performance and art facilities: the Bing Concert Hall, which opens in January; the Anderson Collection building, scheduled to open in 2014; and the McMurtry Building for the department of art and art history, projected for completion in 2015. But the project is not just a niche of riches for art and music majors; its appeal is presumed to transcend disciplinary categories and kindle collaborations from every corner of the University.

One clear signal that’s being sent, comments Stephen Hinton, the initiative’s director and Satz’s predecessor as senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, is how committed and serious the University is about the breadth and passion of its intellectual life. He’s sure applicants will notice. “The English major is not just interested in going to a good English department, but in going to a place that is clearly the best at humanities more broadly.”

Gaining a sense of Stanford’s scope is just as important for many students as tapping into the strength of a particular program. It was the multidisciplinary talents of drama instructor Dan Klein that impressed freshman Saya Jenks, and it is Stanford’s interdisciplinary strength that UC-Davis’s Milburn sees as crucial. Navigating options is part of the educational challenge.

Elias Rodriques, sometimes “a trepidatious guy,” went through most of his freshman year mulling a major in physics instead of English. But he decided on English and now, as a senior, he tells the kinds of anecdotes about great teachers and personal growth that exemplify the ideal undergraduate experience described by Saller and Satz.

Rodriques is uncertain what he’s going to do after graduation, and he’s not immune from fretfulness about whether he has used his four years to best advantage. “Having said that,” he continues, “I think it made me a lot happier, a lot more intellectually satisfied. Being an English major provided me with both those things.”

It’s the perfect graduating declaration, at least to those immersed in enhancing Stanford’s image as a humanities haven. It’s not easy landing humanities majors, but that seems to be because they don’t know what they’re missing.

“After we get them,” says Satz, “we don’t lose them.”

Comments (9)

  • Ms. Barbara Tien

    I'm an '81 graduate in the humanities (East Asian Studies) and have spent virtually my entire career among engineers in technology.  Reflecting back on the experience, I have to say that the interdisciplinary perspective and language skills actually taught me as much about how to listen, learn and engage, as it did about the facts of history, techniques of social science or fine points of Japanese calligraphy.

    These are skills that have served me well in surfing the continuously changing technologies of Silicon Valley.  I've turned it into a career in technology products and today I'm finding my way with my own startup.  

    Yes, it is a differentiator for Stanford and one I'm very proud of.  Three cheers for the programs, the commitment -- and the article.

    Posted by Ms. Barbara Tien on Nov 1, 2012 10:11 AM

  • Ms. Anne Wyman

    '08/'09 BA/MA in English. Am at Harvard for the PhD and desperately miss the openness, the faith in the humanities I found at Stanford. Here we are still suspicious of techies and can't believe in ourselves as fuzzies: not the best combination.  

    Posted by Ms. Anne Wyman on Nov 5, 2012 4:39 PM

  • Mr. John Radway, Jr.

    My degree in Philosophy from Stanford ('58) has been crucial in my life.  It eased my way through law school, gave me an edge in understanding the complexities of the practice of criminal law, and has made my life almost unbelievably richer in every way.  And most of all, it facilitated my understanding of the dementia that eventually killed my wife of 50 years a couple of years ago, allowing me to be a better caregiver, and easing my grief at her loss.  I don't think I could have survived without it.  This article renews my faith in Stanford's humanities program,  My wife and I first met Debra Satz when she first came to Stanford, and I'm very pleased that she is leading the efforts to resurrect that program.

    Posted by Mr. John Radway, Jr. on Nov 6, 2012 7:04 AM

  • Mr. Osea Nelson II

    My stay at Stanford and the classes I took began my search for the purpose of education.  Seeing a whole bunch of my peers exiting the engineering building, slide rules attached, I ran to the Humanities (haha).  Anyway, years later, as an insturctor at a community college, I asked my students what they thought the purpose of education was and left them to ponder the question for a few days.  Since I'd asked them, I decided to ask myself.  After much questioning, filtering, thinking, attempting, and hypothesizing, I finally arrived at what I still hold to be true today: It's to destroy ignorance.  A bit harsh, perhaps, but the strong statement spotlights the central role the humanities play in our lives--they show us how to think, broaden our perspectives, gain broad knowledge or ourselves and the world around us, to use reason as a means of understanding the world and solving problems.  Ignorance, after all, is simply lack of knowledge, and heaven knows, we are all ignorant of the larger matters in life to one degree or another.  But focusing on vocational training (even engineers and lawyers) totally overlooks the "destroys ignorance" view of education; in fact, the only opposite to vocational training is a broad liberal-arts education.

    As you can imagine (and the article makes clear), few in this country--and probably aroud the world--hold this view I have of real "education" (not training); it has been and probably always will be that way.  But a few of us can champion "destroying ignorance" as a contribution we can make to moving the mountain spoonful by spoonful.

    Osea Nelson

    Posted by Mr. Osea Nelson II on Nov 6, 2012 1:52 PM

  • Josephine Gross, PhD

    A '92 graduate of the French Department, I have always found rewarding work outside of academics. My Humanities education, which started in high school in my native Belgium, has definitely helped me in all areas of life. Today I am the editor in chief of a newsstand publication in personal and professional development. I would love to share with students how the study of classics, history, philosophy, literature, and foreign languages has paved the way for me to build strong relationships and teams, and to engage others in projects I spearhead. I enjoyed this article and will continue to write about this topic in my own publication.

    Posted by Josephine Gross, PhD on Nov 10, 2012 7:06 PM

  • Mr. Jay Canchola

    It seems to me that major corporations have been spending more time and money to improve leadership, talent management, innovation and organization effectiveness.  This can be measured by the increase in the number of people hired with degrees and experience in these particular domains.  In my humble opinion, all of these subject areas are directly related to humanities.

    So, if you are looking for a business case to justify growth in the humanities, then you do not have to look any further than corporations growing their departments (mostly in HR, Human Resources).  

    Posted by Mr. Jay Canchola on Nov 12, 2012 2:31 PM

  • Jeffery Lee Dangl, Ph.D.

    I am a very fortunate Stanford grad, class of 1980. My career in in academic scientific research has been successful beyond my wildest fantasies, and I have been the beneficiary of some awards and more than my share of federal grant funds. I was fortunate enough to be elected by my peers to the US National Academy of Sciences several years ago. I was a Biology/English double major at Stanford. Whatever successes I have had are much more dependent on my English degree than on my Biology degree.  I use my English degree skills every day. In essence, I am a professional writer. I am also a professional editor, and a professional text critic. Analytical skills intrinsic to a general liberal arts education are way more valuable, in my view, than the ephemeral 'facts' of any particular science, which change over time as technology reveals new and deeper layers of understanding. Critical thinking and the ability to comfortably adopt orthogonal analytical vantage points are the most important skills to absorb, and the humanities present a great canvas for that exercise.

    Posted by Jeffery Lee Dangl, Ph.D. on Nov 13, 2012 6:33 PM

  • Derek Roberti, PhD

    Articles such as this one repeat a general refusal among Humanities academics to seriously take on the possibility that they are simply less relevant to students seeking academic degrees for practical ends.

    I don't think there is any argument that the Humanities can be interesting, rewarding, etc. But some people do seriously consider their degree as an investment and whether a Humanities degree is a good investment should be an empirical matter.

    Interestingly, I've never heard of a Humanities professor advocating that we look at data that compares starting (or lifetime) salaries of Humanities vs. non-Humanities majors.

    Humanities advocates often refer to things like writing skills, project management or interdisciplinary thinking as a reward of a Humanities education. And yet.... How many classes in the English department tackle these questions head on in a practical way? What does the Business Writing curriculum look like? How can students effectively communicate with co-workers who speak English as a second language? How can students learn to manage conflict and deal with difficult customers?

    It seems like Humanities apologists argue for the imagined positive side-effects of a Humanities degree. But they are loathe to study these and even more averse to making these skills core to their programs.

    Finally, they imagine Humanities courses as a unique source of writing and communication skills. But in my experience, I have encountered many clear and effective writers who are not English majors or lack college degrees.

    Posted by Derek Roberti, PhD on Nov 13, 2012 7:44 PM

  • Mr. Scott Hartley

    There is a faux opposition between the Fuzzies and the Techies, and like CP Snow advised in 1959, we ought to think about how to bring these two sides together. We need more Python developers reading Pushkin, and more Joyce scholars writing Javascript. Having studied political science but spent the past decade since graduation in technology, I felt obliged to point out in my forthcoming book, The Fuzzy and the Techie (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), that often it's the fuzzies, not the techies, at the helm of some of the hottest Valley companies. Pinterest, Slack, Palantir, Instagram, Salesforce, AOL, LinkedIn Paypal, and Stitch Fix are just a few of them who are founded by someone from the humanities or social sciences.

    Posted by Mr. Scott Hartley on Feb 4, 2017 8:48 PM


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