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Stanford launches effort to increase study of humanities

This academic year has seen a campus-wide initiative to increase the study of the humanities at Stanford. One of the stepping-stones in this initiative is an upcoming Admit Weekend event, titled “Creativity and the Human Condition: Humanities Research and Arts Endeavors at Stanford,” set for April 30. The event aims to reach students early and encourage them expand their involvement in the humanities, both as an area of academic study and as an extra-curricular.

Mandated by the offices of the Provost and the President, the effort is a response to decreasing numbers of humanities students at Stanford and colleges nationwide. Leaders of the effort include the dean of the School of Humanities & Sciences, the associate dean for the Humanities and Arts and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE). According to Vice Provost Harry Elam Jr., the initiative entails a broad effort to increase the visibility of the humanities on campus, rather than targeting numeric goals.

(JAMES BUI/The Stanford Daily)

“There is not a specific figure that we are aiming for, but in addition to increasing the number of humanities majors, another goal of the effort is to increase interest and enrollment in humanities courses,” Elam wrote in an email to The Daily.

The disciplines that constitute the humanities vary at each university. Stanford’s humanities program includes 15 departments: art and art history, classics, drama, East Asian languages and cultures, English, history, linguistics, music, philosophy, religious studies and the five departments of the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages (DLCL).

Humanities Outreach Officer Corrie Goldman said the disciplines share one important commonality.

“These are all ways human beings process the world around them,” Goldman said.

Amid the economic belt-tightening of recent years, many students have opted for majors that they view as more practical rather than those within the humanities. According to a 2009 New York Times article, the humanities constitute less than half of college degrees earned than they did during the mid- to late 1960s. Currently, they account for about 8 percent of college degrees nationwide. At Stanford, 16 percent of students are humanities majors.

Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the Humanities and Arts, said the initiative intends to “combat the growing pre-professionalism of students” who question the relevance of humanistic study. One strategy is updating traditional humanities courses to include more contemporary ethical, political and social issues.

“We’re developing new coursework to showcase big ideas the humanities have to offer to people of the 21st century,” Satz said.

According to Elam, another aspect of the initiative is correcting the misconception that the humanities coursework makes students less competitive applicants for employment or graduate school.

“Students often feel that the humanities somehow don’t translate into a job after Stanford — that a humanities major, or too many humanities courses, will decrease their chances of finding employment,” Elam said. “However, this is a decidedly false impression. Humanities majors have gone on from Stanford to a wide variety of careers and professional schools.”

Elam cited the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where the current entering class is composed of more than 40 percent humanities majors. Humanists matriculate in large numbers to other professional schools, such as law and medicine. Goldman noted that, in the rapidly evolving workplace, employers value the well-rounded nature of humanities students.

“A creative, nimble mind is valuable in an era where the assembly line is going away,” she said.

Associate professor of history Robert Crews, who serves as the director of his department’s undergraduate studies, argued that the most powerful benefits of the humanities extend beyond a student’s ultimate career path. Humanist study, he said, prepares students to become citizens of the world.

“A lot of Stanford students want to save the world, but we can’t do that until we see how it got to its present, broken state,” Crews said.

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