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Enlightenment in Unexpected Places

This piece is part of The Daily’s “The Humanities in the 21st Century” series, running from April 7-11, 2014, which explores Stanford’s relationship with the humanities and the future of undergraduate studies in these fields. The other parts of the series can be found here.

Humanities and arts (H&A) enrollments have declined over the past decade at Stanford and at our peer institutions. At Stanford, the decline in course enrollments in H&A departments has totaled 10 percent over 10 years, while the number of majors has declined 28 percent. Do these trends matter? Why?

The goal of a Stanford undergraduate education should be to prepare our graduates for fulfilling professional, civic and personal lives. The humanities and arts are essential to all three. For professional (and especially managerial) careers, reading great literature enhances the imagination and develops a more sophisticated “theory of mind” that improves interpersonal skills. Courses in literature, history and philosophy hone analytical and writing abilities, which are sought out by medical, law and business schools in their admissions.

The humanities and arts have utilitarian value, but the case for them does not rest solely on considerations of career. They go right to the heart of the value and meaning of our civic and personal lives. It goes without saying that informed citizens need to know about the historical roots of contemporary problems as well as the cultures, religions and history of other societies. One’s personal life should be grounded in critical reflections about what is worthwhile and just — a principle expressed by Socrates, the founder of European moral philosophy, in his dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The humanities and arts have the potential not only to make a person’s life better in a moral sense but also richer in aesthetic dimensions, as the recent opening of Bing Concert Hall has vividly demonstrated.

What are the implications of this brief justification of the humanities and arts for Stanford education? As a dean, I believe that every Stanford undergraduate should have a serious engagement with the humanities and arts. To my mind, this is a more important aim than increasing the number of majors. And I hope that the engagement will stimulate discussion and exploration beyond the classroom about what it means to lead a purposeful life, how to contribute as a citizen and how to deepen one’s appreciation of beauty.

What practical measures can the School of H&S take to achieve these ends?

First, the departments and faculty have been developing courses of broad interest for non-majors. I was heartened to note that five of The Stanford Daily’s “top ten professors” (Professors Wolff, Applebaum, Nemerov, Campbell and Tobin) teach courses in the humanities and arts. Secondly, some of the core humanities departments have revamped their curricula to give them a clearer structure. Thirdly, in response to the shift in student interest from departmental majors to Interdepartmental Programs within H&S, such as Human Biology, International Relations and Science, Technology, and Society, we are finding ways to fold more humanities courses into these popular programs. Three of the new Faculty Fellows in Human Biology teach literature or philosophy courses on subjects such as near-death experiences and ethics through the life cycle. The International Relations program now offers a specialization in “international history and culture.” New programs combining technical skills with the humanities are under development (a possible minor in digital humanities or joint majors in Computer Science and English).

Finally, while I resist the notion that a Stanford undergraduate education is primarily for vocational ends, I understand the anxieties about careers after graduation. It is important for students and their families to realize that for the great majority of our graduates the bachelor’s degree will not be the end of their education: Professional schools can provide vocational credentials, and humanities majors are strong applicants to professional programs. In addition, Stanford humanities and arts majors are invited to apply for Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Summer Institute for General Management with the possibility of financial aid from the Office of the President beginning in Summer 2014. It is simply a mistake to believe that a humanities major is a professional dead end.

Let me close on a personal note. I started college in an engineering program and was thriving, but then discovered a real passion for Roman history by taking a course to satisfy a distribution requirement. My switch of major to classical history required starting Greek and Latin the next year, followed by doctoral work in Cambridge, England. The job market for Ph.D.s in history was grim in the late 1970s, but I persisted, and the reward has been a career in teaching and research that has been thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. The lesson I would draw is not that all engineers ought to transfer to the humanities as I did (the world would grind to a halt if they did), but that students should explore a wide range of courses to develop multiple ways of thinking and to find their personal passion, which may turn up in unexpected places.


Richard Saller
Dean, College of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University

Contact Dean Saller at