In defense of the humanities, computer science and the not-so-book-drunk English major

April 8, 2014, 1:39 a.m.

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.

Fire up your favorite search browser, and you’ll find that for every article written “in defense of the humanities,” there exists a second one covering the gazillion-dollar acquisition of a Stanford start-up, five Instagrams of a Google workplace perk and 10 Facebook photos of classmates vacationing in a luxurious part of the world because they worked at Facebook or Google the previous summer.

The latter finds do a good job of continuing to ask – if not literally – the hottest question of the 2010s: Why study the humanities? Why study the humanities at Stanford, a school whose relationship with Silicon Valley seems to run even thicker than blood?

I did not ask myself those questions when I switched from pre-med HumBio to English my junior year. Instead, I asked them the following summer, when I ate purple velvet cupcakes at Yahoo and oysters at Apple courtesy of friends, and listened to those friends talk about finding apartments without giving much consideration to money at all. I asked those questions, like many other humanities students, at my first career fair (in other words, my first blast of post-graduation reality). I asked them when a professor referred to English majors as “book-drunk” intellectuals, and I thought, rather frantically, am I book-drunk enough?

I am not saying that purple velvet cupcakes made me question my academic decisions – not even close. But free cupcakes and nap pods represent something greater: a future of financial stability, funds to perhaps travel the world and respectability, at least in the sense that you didn’t, quantitatively speaking, squander your parents’ hard-earned money. And if, like me, the image you associate with “book-drunk” is a Daisy Buchanan-esque character tossing and drowning in books like they were the fine silk T-shirts of Leonardo DiCaprio, then the promise of security, and even a few luxuries, is enough to make a not-as-book-drunk English major start second-guessing herself.

I had wanted to study English because I liked to read, write and analyze, and I wanted to learn about literature in an organized setting. I thought I would get into the magazine or publishing industry and work on my own writing at night. I knew, however, that I wasn’t “passionate” enough to become a professor, enter academia and research a subject for decades.

Yet what I discovered, after switching into the major, was that nearly every time I told someone I studied English, he or she would answer, “You’re doing what you love,” “So you’ve seen the light,” or “At least, you’re doing what you love.” 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.”

Considering that the technology industry is no cakewalk either, the debate about whether a humanities or CS major is “luckier” goes on. The debate on why the humanities should be studied will go on, too. I realize that I have not answered that question because the answers are out there already: You become a better critical thinker, reader and writer, skills highly valued in any industry; you are pushed to contemplate human nature, which is essentially the stuff of life. The importance of the humanities is inarguable, and important things should be studied.

What can be further argued is how to keep less-certain humanities students from automatically abandoning their initial interests for a more profitable field, given the nature and pressures of a school embedded in Silicon Valley. Just five years ago, English was the fifth-most awarded degree at Stanford; when it will make the top five again remains a hefty question mark.

Major-specific career counseling should begin early for students interested in the humanities, which the CDC has recognized. I also have high hopes for the new CS + X initiative, which will launch CS-English and CS-Music joint majors in the fall of 2015. I don’t believe that the joint majors will cause either field to be adulterated, and as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to wholly support a piece of advice from one of my Stanford teachers – that English majors should have a “back-up plan” – even if that’s not the intention of CS + X. Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, after all.

I don’t believe that the fuzzy-techie divide between students is that palpable at Stanford, either, but I do believe that denigrating CS as boring, unoriginal or “selling-out” in order to make humanities majors feel better about their futures should be discouraged. English majors aren’t supposed to be unicorns, and when you groom them like they are, what does that say about both the “fuzzy” and “techie” fields?

I’m still an English major, by the way. But I grew up ten minutes away from Apple’s headquarters, and my engineer father has always stressed the importance of learning at least a little bit of code. So I attended the first lecture of CS 106B last week, where the professor informed us that the same number of declared English majors and CS majors were enrolled in the course.

Those numbers have a lot to do with the fact that most students interested in CS do not declare until after 106B, of course, but for a fleeting moment I wondered: How interesting would it be if an English class enrolled the same number of CS majors as English majors?

Grace Chao ’14 is a senior majoring in English. Contact her at gracewc “at”


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