Hope for the humanities

May 15, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

For all the talk of a fuzzie-techie conflict at Stanford, debate between the two domains is sparse and rarely goes anywhere. At most, there’ll be an occasional op-ed from a humanities student claiming that the school doesn’t care about their discipline. These are come up far too infrequently to actually get people to care. Yet, in recent weeks, the dynamic seems to have shifted. A series of articles have been published challenging the community’s neglect for the humanities in important debates and programs.

Each piece claimed that the humanities had been, in some way, wrongly excluded, be it from a debate, scholarship or Stanford more generally. They were all quite well-written and seemed to garner a good deal of community support, too. Unfortunately, their reactionary nature suggests the protest will be short-lived. If humanities students really want change, we need to carry this energy forward.

We should start with the warning of the aforementioned pieces: that change is urgent given campus climate. The reactive increase in plaints on behalf of the humanities suggests recent, exaggerated disregard for them. It’s unlikely that they were coordinated and all directly identify an incident of exclusion. Yet, I would suggest that this discontent has materialized as a direct result of the humanities’ regular silence. So long as we keep a low profile and are uncritical of disciplinary imbalance, we’re subject to further neglect.

Eddie Mattout of the Review gives a perfect example. He pointed out that 0 of the 48 Knight-Hennessy Scholarships went to students exclusively pursuing degrees in the humanities. It is a profound statement, on behalf of the judges, to have chosen literally no humanities students. Certainly supporting that brash decision was the fact that Stanford wouldn’t give them much backlash for it. Any potential critiques from the humanities did not, at all, deter them.

Religious Studies professor Charlotte Fonrobert presented a similar case. She highlighted the fact that a panel on the ‘fuzzy-techie’ divide didn’t include even one humanities student or professor. I strongly doubt this manifest irony would’ve been remotely acceptable elsewhere. Here, however, flak from the humanities is rare. It probably came as a surprise to the event organizer, Louis Newman.

Now, he has since claimed that, of all the people they could have picked, “successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley … are the best positioned to convey the message that, even in the tech world, ‘fuzziness’ matters a lot.”

This response betrays further insularity: We are to believe that these business people have enough humanities expertise on the basis that they are successful in the tech/business world. Yet, they shouldn’t be the ones defining enough. Surely, their definition would look less whole if humanities students critiqued it more often. Or, in response to the organizer, if even one ‘fuzzy’ was on the panel.

Recent backlash to the event tells us people don’t agree with the setup, anyways. Yet, strong backlash (defending the humanities) is so infrequent that it probably didn’t factor into the selection of the panelists. This suggests two things: 1) Critiques from the humanities are actually appreciated by the community, but 2) they’re not yet strong enough to actively warrant our inclusion.

Another, implicit point, raised by Elizabeth Lindqwister, is that the humanities are viewed as non-essential at Stanford. Simply put, people wouldn’t try to dodge them at every turn if they thought they mattered. But, as Lindqwister shows, even Stanford’s undergrad program has reduced the humanities to a requirement.

This is inextricable from their exclusion elsewhere on campus. When they’re framed as nothing more than an obstacle to technical study, it becomes natural for people to try and circumvent them.

Fortunately, the authors mentioned wouldn’t be writing if they didn’t think things could change. In fact, they’ve set a great example for humanities students to push back on Stanford’s disciplinary imbalance. But, in order to make use of it, we need to continue to be this vocal every week.

And consistently critical, at that. We have to proactively demonstrate why the humanities are needed here and now. While I appreciate Mattout’s commentary, arguing for the humanities on the basis of “The fruit of their learning … from Renaissance French literature to the philosophy of language” won’t work.

We hear this argument all the time. Yet, no one validates an engineering or CS project by bringing up the Moon Landing or Atari. They make a case for its unique, modern relevance.

Some of the humanitarian critiques did this quite well. For example, Linda Hess’s late series of op-eds discussed why spiritual practice cannot simply be merged into business. This identified yet another shameless attempt by the Stanford community to discount the distinctive role of the humanities and then put it down.

We need more of that, and not just for our own sakes. If we really believe the humanities are valuable, then we can’t allow them to be ignored. In fact, we ought to feel ashamed for not being more vocal. So long as we remain silent, today’s entrepreneurs will continue to shape a world without our influence.

Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Noah Louis-Ferdinand is a freshman from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He studies Human Biology and Anthropology. Noah is also an avid reader of philosophy and enjoys contemporary fiction. When not studying or writing, he loves to run trail races throughout the United States.

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