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.
Historians are trained to think of issues in terms of change over time, and if two key metrics are considered — the declining number of students majoring in the humanities and the skyrocketing number of think pieces bemoaning the death of the humanities — then historians are faced with a real puzzle. What accounts for this change over time, and more importantly, should we as humanists be concerned?
I believe that the humanities are thriving — at Stanford and elsewhere. They are alive each time a student writes a poem, makes a discovery in a historical archive or thinks deeply about how to be just and ethical. In spite of this, it often seems to me that Stanford administrators are uncertain as to what battle they’re fighting in their quest to “resuscitate” the humanities on campus.
I raise the problem of metrics because I think that it gets at a central issue that plagues the discourse on the undergraduate study of the humanities: a lack of precision in identifying what crisis humanities must be delivered from. Does Stanford want more humanities majors and higher enrollments in humanities classes? Does it want to provide humanities majors with lucrative postgraduation opportunities? Does it want all of its graduates to be thoughtful and engaged citizens? These goals, I believe, can often be in tension with one another, and until Stanford is able to clearly articulate a vision for the role of the humanities on campus, the administration’s many praiseworthy initiatives aimed at reviving humanities are doomed to flounder.
In my time at Stanford, I’ve been immersed — often involuntarily — in the conversation over the fate of the humanities, and in my experience, the issue is often flattened through two pernicious assumptions. The first is that students are instrumental — that they make their choice of major based on some expectation of future return. The second is that the humanities problem is inherently a numbers issue, and it follows that Stanford should utilize expansion as an organizing principle for its humanities initiatives. I believe both of these assumptions are deeply flawed and antithetical to the reality of the student experience within the humanities.
The instrumentalist assumption is born out every time a Stanford administrator says a version of the following: “You can major in the humanities and work at Google, too!” This line, while well-meaning, is ultimately an ineffective pitch. First, and perhaps most obviously, it narrowly implies that the end goal of a Stanford education is employment in the technology sector, regardless of undergraduate preparation. Second, while many Stanford students do consider future employment prospects when selecting an undergraduate major, I believe there is simply no way to make the senior year job market concrete when pitching the humanities to a freshman or sophomore.
The Google pitch — while accurate and facially uncontroversial — is more platitude than substance, trying simultaneously to appeal to students’ instrumental instincts while also disingenuously ignoring the instrumental reality: an engineering degree from Stanford will, on average, pay more over one’s lifetime than a degree in the humanities. That fact is unlikely to change. So why are Stanford administrators still trying to pitch the humanities on instrumental terms?
More jarring is the confusion that persists at all levels of the administration over the question of expansion. It is incredible to me that just two years removed from the last IHUM cohort, there is still a sense that the humanities should be a large scale enterprise on campus. I believe strongly that IHUM failed not because students were disengaged but because a 200-student lecture hall very rarely provides an effective format for the engagement students crave. In seeking to expand the humanities, I fear that Stanford may undermine the intellectual environment that is, for me, a core component of why students love humanistic inquiry.
In my own experience, I chose to major in history because I wanted a particular kind of academic experience, one that would take me out of large lecture halls and into intimate seminars where intellectual engagement was the rule, not the exception. Not incidentally, I also loved learning about the past, in much the same way that I imagine civil engineers feel drawn to their discipline because they love structural puzzles. In communicating what the humanities are and why they matter, I believe that Stanford must appeal to students’ curiosities and to their hunger for intellectual engagement rather than to the abstraction of paychecks three to four years in the future.
Put simply, the question has it wrong: at Stanford, it is the humanities that are present and concrete, and it is the idea of earning potential that is ultimately nebulous. To tell a Stanford freshman that he should major in English because he can use it to write content at Pinterest in 2020 will always be a weak proposition; but to tell him he should major in English because he can hone his writing in a 10-person seminar with the former Poet Laureate of the United States is a premise ripe with possibility. The humanities at Stanford are alive because students are alive — because we seek to create and consume beauty, to communicate ideas and to understand that which is both frightening and different. It is in this present, rather than in an abstract and uncertain future, that the humanities can and will be revived.
Meredith Wheeler ‘14 is a senior majoring in history. Contact her at mlwheel “at” stanford.edu.