By Winston Shi
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.
I will be the first person to admit that I don’t know everything.
I am reminded of that fact every day. There is a lot going on here, and while I’m interested in learning more, I also acknowledge that there is only so much I can learn and so much that I can successfully process.
And isn’t that why we have an Opinions Section?
Allow me to explain. The Section exists in order to showcase discourse and debate. Winning debates is about crafting arguments and proving others invalid, to be sure, but ultimately persuasion is the art of showing people a perspective they had never before understood. What we do at Opinions is teach people about issues and views that had not been explained before.
In the pursuit of this ideal, we want to have a columnist staff that accurately reflects the Stanford population. We have increased the number of columnists at The Daily because we want to bring in more perspectives and more debate. And the breadth of our scope has increased in this respect. But the volume of columns at The Daily is not the only thing that matters to the life of the mind at Stanford. We would be serving you little if we provided you with breadth without depth or explanations without nuance.
At the same time, it’s critical to better use the community that we have here. For all the talk about fundraising or reputation, the most valuable resource we have here is our minds. I argued in my opening column for Opinions that what we need is more community involvement in one of our most important institutions.
It is regrettable, then, that there is always a strong human tendency towards inactivity. We solicit op-eds, that is true. We recruit columnists and we always welcome letters to the editor. But opinions sections are fundamentally reactive. Our columnists respond to events. Our op-eds come in because somebody decided that something was so important that they wanted to write about it. But it is obvious that people have opinions even when the time does not directly call themselves to speak out, and issues still command the imagination when they are not the first thing on our minds. Inertia and the Stanford bubble, then, go hand in hand. We gravitate towards the world within the University grounds, and our minds are more comfortable focusing on what we can readily see.
Far more insidious, however, are the issues we see but do not truly understand.
I speak of the problems that we give lip service to but never really tackle. These are often the most critical issues of the society we live in. Often we as a community lack a fundamental understanding of the problems (and potentially non-problems) that we face. Sometimes we don’t know what the solutions are.
We can attack these problems only by making a sustained effort to understand an issue. And we are trying to begin by attacking these issues in depth. We will bring administrators, faculty and students to these pages to explain what you need to know in terms that are clear and with the nuance that these issues deserve.
The place to begin, I think, is the humanities at Stanford. There is a perpetual angst about the place and role of the humanities here, and yet nobody really knows what the actual problem is or how to solve it. The future of the humanities is a question that disturbs me and befuddles me at the same time. Ordinarily I would not worry too much about a debate on the humanities, but the debate seems to be turning into a question of the very purpose of a rounded education. That is certainly worth our interest.
We have people who understand the question. They don’t all have the same answers, but nevertheless they can help you find the answer. At the very least, I hope they will help get the ball rolling.
We open this week’s op-ed series — “The Humanities in the 21st Century” — with two very distinguished thinkers: Dean Saller of the School of Humanities and Sciences and Dean Minor of the School of Medicine. As the week goes on, we will feature op-eds from other prominent members of the Stanford community, both faculty and students, as we seek to learn more about the future of the humanities at Stanford. I welcome you as well, as this is an inclusive project: If you would like to contribute, we would love to have you. Contributions from the community are, after all, what this series is about.
I would like to thank Katie McDonough and Natalie Jabbar at the School of Humanities and Sciences for their help and assistance in this project. I wish them and my readers the best of luck.
Contact Winston Shi at [email protected]