Where I've Been: Five Take-Aways on the Humanities at Stanford

Informed Skeptic has been quiet over the past few weeks, largely due to a writing series I was developing with the Stanford Review on the future of the Humanities at Stanford. The pieces, variously co-written with Lisa Wallace and Alessandra Aquilanti, looked at three main topics: ,The History of Higher Education (and why this background is so damaging to the humanities),Why students choose the humanities over other fields,The financial future of the humanities

There is a lot of writing between these three articles (over 5000 words actually, so you can really get a hefty dose), but I want to pull out five major points that I think those interested in the humanities should note.

  1. The Humanities at top schools are not going anywhere: they are very well-endowed, and at least at Stanford, have received more faculty slots than any other area at the university. The issue, though, is that the humanities have been experiencing declining enrollments, raising the question about the future sustainability of resources devoted to a declining area of study. If these continue to be out-of-balance, priorities at the university could quickly shift.
  2. Economic pressure is a persistent - but small - part of the equation in students choosing fields outside the humanities. The greater concern students constantly noted to us regarded the utility of the humanities. This is usually taken to mean “employable,” but when unpacked, actually has more to do about receiving an education that is relevant to real problems. In other words, our generation is more practical, but no less desiring of acquiring tools to critically analyze humans and human society. Our look at the English Department at Stanford and its new undergraduate curriculum shows that dramatic change can happen, and quickly. Departments need to develop curricula that provide strong foundations in the field while also maintaining intellectual rigor: providing strong tools for students to use how they please.
  3. Outside of top schools, the humanities are facing a perfect storm of factors that will likely cause them to disappear (I am extending current trends pretty hard, but given the events at SUNY-Albany and Britain, it does not seem unreasonable). The institutional development of the modern university has largely happened without the participation of the humanities, and for this reason, the humanities face an environment not conducive for their long-term success (for instance, the humanities do not bring in research dollars). There are no simple solutions when the entire design of the university is working against you, so humanists should think far bigger about how a new model of universities might give the humanities a stronger footing.
  4. Interdisciplinary studies is not the panacea for the humanities, but it could provide a good context for students to take both technical and humanities subjects (thus pulling students back to the humanities). Symbolic Systems does this at Stanford, and Science, Technology and Society is another field that melds technical with humanistic knowledge. As noted in #2, departments need to be innovative in their approach to undergraduate education and build programs that bring enrollments.
  5. Graduate students study the humanities for a variety of reasons, and most are fully aware of the career choices they are making. Given the state of the academic job market for humanities PhDs, commentators have complained that students were not provided enough information about the job market before they applied to graduate school. Unsurprisingly, graduate students talked about the love they have for their subjects, and factors other than money were the primary motivation for studying their fields. This also means that simply providing more information is unlikely to solve the employment gap for doctoral holders.

Overall, the picture for the humanities is pretty bleak, with the exception of a small rung of top schools. One of the more interesting points made in the many interviews I conducted was by Richard Saller, Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences. He noted that the generation who came to college in the 1960s was anti-utilitarian, and were widely attracted to the humanities for the ability to confront society and critically analyze it. I have to say, that generation did not do so bad for itself in the end - maybe giving hope to those looking to analyze society in the 21st century.