You wouldn’t know it from the placid warmth of spring on the Farm, but there’s a battle raging for the soul of Stanford. Even as the University has launched efforts to save the humanities from waning student interest, more and more of the undergraduate population is devoting itself to the study of technical majors, a development that speaks volumes about the present and future of Stanford.
There’s no use debating it: undergraduate enrollment in computer science classes is booming. While the number of students has increased by a steady 20 percent annually since 2007, the interest is accelerating. This quarter, enrollment in CS 106A, the first introductory course for the computer science major, is up an astounding 120 percent from the same time last year. Many other computer science classes have nearly doubled in size as well, and the department has even had to cap enrollment in some upper-division courses. This is surely worrying news to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam Jr., who is quoted by The Daily in an article from Monday that the University has redoubled efforts to encourage student enrollment in the humanities.
Part of this trend is undoubtedly due to the resurgence of the market for techies, and CS majors in particular. Certainly, employers’ insatiable demand and the promise of high-paying jobs after graduation encourage many students to consider entering the field. Yet, it’s too easy to write off such a monumental shift as a response to starry-eyed freshmen hoping to be the next Zuckerbergs.
It is telling that many students take CS 106A to fulfill the engineering and applied sciences GER, only to fall in love with the class and switch majors. CS106A professor Eric Roberts has even recounted instances in which seniors taking his course in their last quarter have discovered such an affinity for the material that they express their regret at not having discovered it sooner. Of the more than 2000 reviews of CS 106A on CourseRank, the average rating is 4.5/5 stars; by comparison, IHUM ratings center around 2-3 stars. Could it be that CS courses are simply better taught or more interesting than their fuzzy counterparts?
Stanford is also far from pulling up its roots as the provider of a broad, liberal education. Despite having generally greater unit requirements for their majors, all techies must still take at least seven quarters of humanities (three in IHUM, two in PWR, one in a class that fulfills the Humanities GER, and one in an EC), while Stanford only requires three techie classes (one each in math, natural science and engineering). Even then, many fuzzies opt for one of many easy options like Stats 60 or a handful of coveted introsems, and might never even enter a research lab, shop class, or even a techie discussion section. If we are concerned about the decline of the humanities, we should also encourage fuzzies to take more than a perfunctory course load in the hard sciences.
To be sure, the humanities will never become an obsolete part of a Stanford education, and the University is right to keep an eye on their declining popularity. Yet, let us not believe for a second that our techies are all Deresiewiczian sheep, slouching “toward a glorified form of vocational training.” As many students have found, it is not so hard to believe that writing Java or C++ might have as much to do with living authentically or happily as reading Shakespeare or Plato.