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The case for more humanities requirements

Immersed in the heart of Silicon Valley, our university is especially centered around technological innovation as our world becomes increasingly driven by data. As the tech industry grows, people are flocking toward technical majors, and it seems that the humanities are being left in the dust.

When brainstorming Daily pieces, I tend to come up with lists of potential topics, and the topic of humanities courses and increasing humanities requirements has been jotted down for a while now. With the Stanford Review’s controversial piece  petitioning the student body to support a Western civilizations requirement in place of the current Thinking Matters, this debate is ever so pertinent, particularly with the near-outrage it sparked amongst a portion of the student body in reaction to the Review’s standpoint.

First of all, the disproportionate weight of this discussion on Western thinking and inclusion of Western works in the literary canon does not promote a diverse way of thinking or philosophizing. Of course, it is important to understand the foundations of our own culture, but we cannot as a species keep indulging in one-sided, selfish ways of framing our own ideas. There is no reason to cast aside the philosophies, histories, and cultures of non-Western regions, both because there is no rule that establishes Western thought as a “correct” mode of thinking — if we can even define something like that — and because cross-cultural empathy and understanding is so important in an increasingly globalized society.

However, aside from the Review’s slightly misguided approach, I am fully in support of revamping Stanford’s humanities requirements. Educational institutions are losing sight of humanities education, and it has been shown that Stanford in particular has fewer humanities requirements than similarly-tiered schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Princeton, particularly due to the flexibility introduced by the current system. Furthermore, interest in humanities subjects is rapidly diminishing. As of Autumn Quarter 2015, the five majors with the highest undergraduate enrollment all fall within the domain of STEM.

Of course, I’m no exception to this pattern. I’m a physics major, and potential math double major, but I still fully support and increased presence of humanities requirements in my education. STEM can teach me plenty — how computers work, what our universe is made of, and how to model the natural processes around us. It can teach us how to think critically and solve problems.

However, the humanities serve their own purpose, one that I believe is just as pertinent as learning how to code. Literature, philosophy, history are just as integral a part of humanity as is the process of scientific and technological discovery. They teach us how to think. They teach us the stories of our predecessors and give us knowledge for the future. They empower us to think critically about life itself, what it is, who we are, and where we are going. Humanities are paramount to not losing sight of ourselves.

What is most critical is the fact that we as Stanford students are studying these fields — computer science, human biology, engineering — with the intent to become active participants in them and pursue careers in research or industry. These hemispheres are not distinct entities from the rest of the world or from society; they are intimately intertwined with the cultures and countries they reside in and heavily influence the shaping of our world. In order to fully understand the impact the technologies we create or the research we pursue is having on humanity, and in order to maximize their benefit, it is necessary to understand the history, political atmosphere, and cultural backgrounds of those they are reaching. Furthermore, many of us have the goal or intent of becoming leaders in our respective fields. In order to incite meaningful change within society, it is imperative to understand exactly what we are influencing, whether it be from the ideas we promote or the products we create.

Though the most appealing aspect of the current Thinking Matters and PWR programs  is perhaps the flexibility they offer, it’s not a difficult feat to complete an undergraduate degree without having any real dose of education in the humanities. Even the new WAYS requirements add so much flexibility to the system that one could complete four years of undergraduate education at Stanford without ever coming into proximity with the classics of civilization, the pillars of philosophy, and so many other subjects that allow us to become well-rounded individuals.

That’s not the kind of education we should have been committing ourselves to when we accepted our admission at Stanford. While everyone has their nuanced motivations in attending the university, the aim of the educational system at this high of a level should be to offer a comprehensive, rigorous education. This does not mean we should receive four years of intensive training in our chosen field, but that we should seek to understand the world at a higher level, learn the diversity of those around us, and engage in the many facets of the human experience. One cannot achieve this by taking a monochromatic course load.

Just as we should aim, in an increasingly technology-focused society, to learn the technical subjects that arise, we should also not lose sight of the pillars of human thought and the influence in the many spheres of the human experience. Our undergraduate education acts as the springboard for further development in thought, in our careers, and in our growth as contributing members of society. Humanities are an integral part in the achievement of this comprehensive goal.

Contact Amara McCune at amccune2 ‘at’


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