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Beyond the idea of “major”: The scope of the humanities at Stanford

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.

In 2013, the National Humanities Center began its annual report with a provocative statement. “Of all the things in this world that ‘go together like a horse and carriage’ “, the report said, “few pair bonds are as tight as ‘the humanities’ and ‘crisis’.”

As a participant in – and Director of – a humanities program at Stanford, the English Department’s Creative Writing Program, the words make me uneasy. Not because they’re dire, but because they’re vague. Putting together large terms like “crisis” and broader categories like “humanities” is bound to generate discussion, but not necessarily solutions.

Certainly there are concerns. Humanities majors understandably fear that the job market privileges different skills than the ones they might acquire. Yet the evidence is to the contrary. Good writing, good reading, problem solving and articulate argument – all gifts of the Humanities – are building blocks that are seen as valuable by many employers.

But in the current job climate, a predictable, immediate connection between choices at university and the workplace can be hoped for and achieved, but not guaranteed. This understandably troubles many students, even leading them away from choices they would like to make to those they think they should make.

All of this in turn has led to an important Stanford-wide conversation about the Humanities. But isn’t there a chance that something could get lost in a theoretical discussion? Isn’t it possible that in discussing the “decline of the humanities” we might forget where the real focus is? That in coming to the defense of a branch of studies whose definition was never absolutely clear, we might overlook one aspect on which we could all agree?

While the humanities are being talked about or even talked away, could we be looking in the wrong direction? Instead of the humanities, isn’t it the potential humanist in every single student who comes to Stanford that is the real and current challenge? Isn’t it possible that, seen from this aspect, the humanities at Stanford – far from being a cause for pessimism – might actually be an endlessly renewable resource, regardless of major?

Do I believe in that humanist? I really do. I also believe in Creative Writing; we have the figures to prove it. While we value and appreciate the often brilliant and scholarly teaching in the English Department that goes with the English major with a Creative Writing emphasis – and think our students are lucky to have it – we have seen a number of new developments in the past decade that we believe are evolving, new structures. And we are excited to participate in them.

We have an open-minded, empirical and gifted cohort of lecturers. What they are seeing and what they are reporting on is striking. Last fall, one of our lecturers remarked that her entire non-fiction class was composed of math majors. In the spring of 2013, 80 percent of our Creative Writing students were non-English majors. Our lecturers take a real pleasure in these students, not because they are surprised by them, but because they are not. As writers themselves, they know there is nothing predictable about the context for creativity.

I believe this new humanist should participate fully in re-defining the Humanities and in helping to set the terms of the debate. Not theoretical discussion, however enlightened. Nor committees, however far-reaching. Which means starting with the statistics. If only 10 percent of incoming students plan to major in the humanities, why should that be taken to mean that only 10 percent are potential humanists? Why should that statistic be taken as evidence of a decline in a branch of knowledge, when it might actually be a threshold for a new beginning in it?

If a Stanford humanist is majoring in Computer science or in Human Biology, this surely represents not a loss to the University’s educational mission but a fresh opportunity. This is especially so because Stanford has shown flexibility in taking on these challenges: There are structures, courses and collaborations right across the University – some of them of recent origin – which now recognize the humanist potential of science majors and the scientific interests of majors in English, History and other humanities.

So all of us on the Creative Writing faculty – Elizabeth Tallent, Ken Fields, Tobias Wolff, Richard Powers, Adam Johnson and myself – have welcomed the joint major between Computer Science and English. For example, as part of our response to student interests, we will add science fiction courses. We recognize that in a joint major, the questions, the clarifications and the insights on both sides should hold up a mirror to one another. What computer science and science fiction have in common, it seemed to us, is that both are stake-holders in an imagined future. As teachers and students at Stanford, so are we. The humanities have always been about the future as well as the past. We just need to remember that.

Eavan Boland

Director, Stanford Creative Writing Program

 

Contact Eavan Boland at boland “at” stanford.edu.

 

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