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An open letter announcing a new Humanities Core


The humanities have always stood at the center of a liberal education. To study the humanities is to acquire or hone valuable skills in thinking, researching and writing, as well as to probe the mysteries and marvels of human experience and aspirations in their diverse forms. These are vital skills. Many of the world’s greatest problems — climate change, inequality, poverty, and conflict — involve questions of value and meaning that the humanities explore. What do we owe to future generations? Is there an obligation to remember the past and if so, how? What is a fair way of distributing benefits and burdens? What does it mean to be — or not to be — a citizen?

We are excited to announce the launch of a new Humanities Core. The Core is designed to provide students with a structured and guided pathway into the humanities. It introduces students to fundamental questions of human existence, and to the many thinkers whose answers continue to challenge us. It invites students to join the lasting conversations around these and other topics. By participating in these conversations, students will also develop the mental agility to hold more than one compelling answer in their minds at once, to find their way into seemingly airtight argument, to deepen and challenge their own commitments, and to question the very terms we use to think and argue.

Why the Humanities?

Science and technology cannot tell us what is fair and just, what is beautiful, or what it means to be free. Nor can they answer the most profound questions that every human being faces: How am I to choose? What gives my life meaning? While medicine can explain the processes of death, no biologist has yet found a gene for life’s significance. Literature, philosophy, classics, the arts, religious studies, and history are springboards for exploring answers to all of these topics. The humanities thus provide a foundation that graduates return to time and time again throughout their careers and lives. To miss out on humanities classes in college is to miss out on a fundamental and defining part of education.

Unfortunately, too many students at Stanford are missing out, for a number of reasons. Some are uncertain where to start; others are intimidated; a few don’t know what the humanities are. Without a dedicated freshman requirement, many students only encounter the humanities during their senior year when it is too late to pursue their interest.

What is the Humanities Core?

It is with these and other concerns in mind that, through a consultative process involving students and faculty, we created the Humanities Core. The Core consists of four tiers:

  1. A foundational lecture course that leads students on an investigation of the ancient origins of world civilizations (Foundations)
  2. A series of parallel tracks, each of which focuses on the literary, cultural, and philosophical traditions of a region broadly construed on a “Great Books” model. These tracks will consist of a three-course sequence; courses will primarily be offered as seminars. We are currently planning four tracks: East Asian, Middle Eastern, African/African-American, and European (Traditions). Other tracks will be added based on faculty availability and student interest.
  3. A series of introductory courses to the various humanities disciplines (Disciplines), some of which already exist (e.g. ARTHIST 1B, or PHIL 1).
  4. A group of more advanced seminars that allow students to deepen their knowledge of different traditions and disciplines in departmental settings

While there are no prerequisites for any of the classes, which can be taken in any order, students are nonetheless encouraged to take the “Foundations” course their freshman year, followed by one of the “Traditions” their sophomore or junior year. Students who take all three courses in a “Traditions” track will receive a Humanities Core certificate; in 2017-18, a Humanities minor should also be available. For the minor, students will need to take the “Foundations” course, three quarters of a “Traditions,” plus two more courses (from among the “Disciplines” or advanced seminars).

Why is the Humanities Core designed this way?

The guiding philosophy behind Humanities Core is that all students should have some references and readings in common (Foundations). We chose ancient civilizations in order to introduce students to basic beliefs and concepts that underpin a diverse range of cultures and remain central today. Beyond this foundation, we recognize that the study of no single cultural tradition can be required of all students, but that there are considerable advantages to critically studying a tradition as a coherent and loosely defined whole. Hence, we offer students the opportunity to dive deep in the track(s) of their choice (Traditions). Each of these traditions engages with many similar questions, and some include the same authors, but often come to different conclusions.

Students will then have the opportunity to learn more about the history and methods of specific disciplinary approaches in the third component of the program (Disciplines). They can also complement this training by taking advanced seminars in areas of greatest interest.

Designing a humanities core program is always a balancing act. It requires negotiating between a number of different, at times conflicting, values. Decisions made during this process can be controversial, and we do not claim that this program is the only possible solution. What we sought to create was a program of study that encompasses the full diversity of human cultures, and allows for student choice, but also ensures that students engage with the authors whose works have had an oversized influence on later generations and still resonate with us today.

While some programs seek to incorporate diversity within a single curriculum, we opted to let students plunge deeply into the tradition of their choice. The advantage of this approach is that it highlights how thinkers are engaged in conversation with those who came before them, allowing students to fit their own thoughts into these longstanding discussions. But each of these traditions includes a variety of diverse and conflicting voices, and covers a broad expanse of ground (from both a chronological and geographical perspective).

The regions we have chosen are starting places, not containers; many intersect with each other at multiple times. Cultures intermingle as peoples and ideas traverse the globe. And all of these diverse traditions deal with certain common themes and questions — for example, with the meaning and place of equality, liberty, solidarity, justice, luck, diversity, beauty, and human mortality.

When the Humanities Core will begin

The “Foundations” course will be offered in 2016-17, as will the European “Traditions” track. The other “Traditions” tracks will begin in 2017-18. Many of the “Disciplines” courses are already offered (including ARTHIST 1B, PHIL 1, COMPLIT 121-123, and TAPS 1). A list of advanced seminars will be made available in fall 2016.

– Debra Satz and Dan Edelstein

Debra Satz is the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, Professor of Philosophy and, by courtesy, Political Science; and the Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts.

Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and, by courtesy, Professor of History; and Chair of the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL).

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