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 and the second is that the humanities problem is inherently a numbers issue. I believe both of these assumptions are deeply flawed and antithetical to the reality of the student experience within the humanities.
Don’t think about the humanities as packaged in classes, syllabi. Don’t “take” the class for x number of units and then cross off one or another distribution requirement. You may be perfectly pleased at your in-class experience, but it will always appear in your memory as a class. The humanities exist out there in its most vibrant forms.
At one point, it seemed as if another way to answer the question of “Why study the humanities at Stanford?” was simply, “So you can do what you love.” And I couldn’t help thinking that “Ah, so you’re doing what you love” – albeit a response made with good intentions, or simply out of habit – held two assumptions: first, that all humanities students love what they study so much that money takes a distant second, and second, that CS majors, or those studying something similarly marketable, don’t enjoy what they do, and are simply cogs in the machine. A related third assumption is that humanities students who end up taking CS jobs are “selling out.”
If a Stanford humanist is majoring in Computer science or in Human Biology, this surely represents not a loss to the University’s educational mission but a fresh opportunity. This is especially so because Stanford has shown flexibility in taking on these challenges: There are structures, courses and collaborations right across the University – some of them of recent origin – which now recognize the humanist potential of science majors and the scientific interests of majors in English, History and other humanities.
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. 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.
The humanities and arts have utilitarian value, but the case for them does not rest solely on considerations of career. They go right to the heart of the value and meaning of our civic and personal lives.
We are in the midst of a biomedical revolution. From genomics to electronic medical records, massive quantities of data about individuals and populations are now available. To obtain meaningful information from these sources requires new processes of analysis. The nature of truth, the power of these inferences and the actions we should take based upon them are subjects of active discussion among scientists and philosophers alike.