By Edward Ngai
Students hate IHUM. Assigned books are conspicuously crisp and unmarked. There are rows of empty bike racks in front of a half-empty auditorium by week three. “I have so much IHUM reading,” a dorm mate complains.
No response. A snort, and maybe a snigger somewhere. Some people sigh. Fact is, if you’re still doing your IHUM reading in week six, you probably need a heavier course load.
It’s such a shame, really, that this is the state of freshman-year humanities at one of the world’s top-ranked humanities schools. Because whether we like IHUM or not, the humanities should play some role in every college student’s education, no matter what you want to do or who you want to be.
The humanities can teach us to think critically and analyze connotations, undercurrents and contexts as well as what is on the page. Reading the stories of other characters, real or fictional, can teach us about ethics, morality and our role on Earth. We can see the follies of humankind in text and perhaps even realize that, in some ways, we’re not so different here in flesh.
Those aren’t skills only for humanities majors. Those are broad-based, critical-thinking, big-picture skills that everyone should be familiar with.
So why do we hate IHUM so much?
Because at the end of the day, many of us are forced to take humanities classes we’re not interested in. The very least the IHUM program could do is let us apply the humanities to areas we are passionate about. If you’re going to force us to eat spinach at the buffet, at least let us heap on the ranch.
But instead of being offered classes that address our interests — like a medical humanities IHUM exploring the world of bioethics, or a social sciences IHUM relating morality to government and economics — we get to choose between such diverse offerings as Poetic Justice, Epic Journeys, Inventing Classics and What is a Classic?
Never mind all the other amazing classes you wish you had the units to take. You’re stuck in the salad line, the buffet consisting of religious classics, Russian classics and Greek and Roman classics. Bon appetit.
Compound this with the difficulty of scheduling two quarters in advance and the potential conflicts with other classes, and you’re pretty much dealt a hand where you might have to take a class you couldn’t care less about.
And say in some alternate reality we are willing to walk into our IHUM class and give it a fair shot. After all, it focuses on close reading, rhetorical analysis and textual arguments. These are all very important skills.
But some have found that their repeated attempts to relate the works of antiquity to the 21st century have been rebuffed on the grounds that it is beyond the scope of the assignment. In the humanities, this is probably true. We probably shouldn’t extrapolate too much and should rather focus on how the text reads.
But for a HumBio major? Few of us are interested in the material to begin with. Now we can’t even relate these texts to the things we do care about?
No wonder that however well-intentioned we are going into the program, we inevitably end up disillusioned with IHUM.
In truth, our hatred of IHUM should not be that difficult to change. Stanford should move IHUM in a more interdisciplinary direction, relating the humanities to science, medicine, political science and fine arts.
Indeed, this would do much to prove to skeptical college students that the humanities are crucial and omnipresent no matter what we intend to pursue in the future.
But as Stanford does away with IHUM in the near future, replacing it with a waffly “thinking” course that essentially waives the requirement to have any exposure to the humanities over a four-year college career, it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We should reaffirm the role of the humanities in a well-rounded, elite education by using an approach that proves their worth and ubiquity in other fields to our students; instead, we are simply enlarging the hoops that freshmen are forced to jump through.
Worse still, we will no longer require Stanford graduates to have at least acquainted themselves with the humanities and their teachings: lessons of morality, society and the human condition.
And it is the loss of those lessons, if not necessarily the IHUM program itself, which is worth lamenting.
Disagree? Ed wants to hear what you think. Email him at edngai “at” stanford “dot” edu or tweet him @edngai.