Op-ed: No humanities students won a Knight-Hennessy scholarship, here’s why

June 6, 2018, 5:00 a.m.

About one month ago, the Stanford Review published an article by Eddie Mattout entitled “No Humanities Students Won a Knight-Hennessy Scholarship. Why?” In the article, Mattout argues that the scholarship, which funds graduate students from around the world in an effort to create a “community of future global leaders,” should include humanities students.

The “Why?” in this title is not a rhetorical one. It articulates a demand, a “How could they?” rather than a “What caused this?” This title, perhaps unwittingly, belies an underlying problem with Mattout’s approach to evaluating the humanities: it seeks action rather than understanding. More broadly, his argument requires of the humanities that they be useful according to established definitions of usefulness, not recognizing that questioning those definitions is one of the fundamental aims of the humanities.

Mattout concludes his article with the demand that humanities students be included in the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship Program. We disagree; we find the absence of the humanities from this program unsurprising and completely natural, since the two aim at fundamentally different goals.

KHSP presents itself as a program which develops future leaders who will have a global impact. It prizes community, talent, leadership, power, and most of all — change.

Based on these values, it would be more surprising if the program offered a substantial number of scholarships to humanities students — after all, most English students hardly expect to be able to change the world through a poem or literary analysis in the same way or to the same degree that a doctor could change the world by discovering or inventing a vaccine.

This is where the humanities and the Knight-Hennessy Program — and the larger Stanford vein of impact-oriented, world-changing aspiration it represents — diverge.

The humanities prioritize questions over answers, and because of this, they cannot drive towards the same aim as the Knight-Hennessy Scholars. The program seeks scholars who want to solve the world’s problems — and this is an admirable goal. However, that goal is simply not the goal of the humanities, for to devote your life to questions means not to solve problems but to go out looking for more problems.

Both question- and answer-seeking are important. One cannot simply pose problems without ever seeking to resolve them. Meanwhile, those who seek to solve problems must know that they are solving the right problems. The Knight-Hennessy Scholars are supposed to solve problems, to “effect large-scale positive impact in the world.” To do so in a responsible manner, they must ask questions such as, “What do we mean when we say ‘positive?’”

Why not, then, enroll those people who “devote their entire study to these very questions,” as Mattout writes? Can the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program not accommodate both the humanistic problem-seekers and the action-oriented problem-solvers?

Here, we must return to the stated purpose of the program: “to address complex challenges through collaboration and innovation.” No mention is made of figuring out what the challenges are; the focus is entirely on the action of addressing them. In such an environment, questions are only a means to the end of finding answers.

The heart of the humanities lies in questioning in order to question. In this, they may not be so different from other liberal arts fields, like the pure sciences. However, unlike the sciences, which operate by building up a body of established knowledge, humanistic fields articulate new ways to look at what we call “knowledge.” And unlike the applied fields, which seek to find uses for knowledge, the humanities seeks to question what exactly we mean by “useful.”

Mattout is not wrong about the humanities offering tools for action, tools that could be useful to those who seek to address the world’s challenges. However, trying to put questions in service of action misses the point of the humanities. On a methodological level, humanistic inquiry simply cannot be meaningful if it is put in service of something else.

Insofar as the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program focuses on action — the effecting of positive impact through the solving of problems — it has no place for the humanities. And this is as it should be.

—Jessica Luo ’19 and Ben Davidson ’21

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