The fiction surrounding humanities

Opinion by Christian Martin
Oct. 30, 2019, 7:11 p.m.

Recently, news of an attempt to revamp Stanford’s undergraduate core requirements under a new “first-year shared intellectual experience” has initiated a torrent of conversations regarding the ethos of our school. Any discussion of liberal arts at Stanford prompts questions like what is the objective of the WAYS breadth requirements in the first place? Should we ask our students, many of whom dream of changing the world through technology, to spend time on cumbersome requirements that push them out of their fields of comfort? What value is there in toiling through the world of the humanities, when the majority of students probably have no conscious intention of interacting with humanistic inquiry professionally? Many in this school, even the most ardent STEM students, would likely answer that some interaction with the humanities is important to avoid the moral bankruptcy that seems to plague Silicon Valley today. Ingrained in this conception is the idea that the liberal arts are interchangeable with abstract ethical understanding. Take that THINK class and you won’t become the next Mark Zuckerberg, having to defend yourself before a congressional hearing. 

Even though most students at Stanford likely agree that humanities classes contribute to developing a sense of ethics, the current rhetoric surrounding the humanities core fails to mention how exactly the humanities make us better employees, friends and citizens. The widespread misunderstanding caused by this failure compromises students’ ability to truly benefit from the liberal arts classes forced upon them. Too often, these explanations gesture to connecting us to our emotions as a way of inexplicably making us better people, or to the even shallower notion that the humanities are an instruction manual to basic universal truths that students should memorize and commit to living by. This notion presupposes that ethics can be taught as flashcards that read “Kant” on one side and “Don’t use human beings as a means to an end” on the other, or “Locke” and “Human beings have certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and property that cannot be abridged by government.”

Such a false conception of the humanities creates a prejudice that undermines the educational value of the liberal arts. A foray into philosophy, literature or art is not intended to drill a few preselected values; we do not study the humanities for their content at all, actually. The liberal arts are about how we think, far more than what we think. Rather than thinking of the humanities as an exercise in committing certain ethical truths to memory, we must instead see it as an opportunity to cultivate our own moral compasses and capacities to discern right from wrong. This, in turn, is based upon sharpening our own critical thinking abilities through reflection upon texts and art, debate about those reflections, reflections upon those debates and so on. Put another way, we need classes that give our brains’ critical processing a workout.

It is here that one of the worst misconceptions about the humanities gets exposed: that the humanities center on emotional expression, counterposed to rational and logical reasoning, often associated with STEM fields. The truth is the exact opposite. An education in the humanities is an education in deliberation. Deliberation comes etymologically, from “de-liberating” or “un-freeing” ourselves from passion to instead deal in reason and logic. The only way to do that, paradoxically though, is by being in touch with our emotions, freeing ourselves from being subconsciously dominated by our feelings. It is the STEM students, on the other hand, who in failing to fully explore their emotions are unknowingly beholden to them, doing what feels right by blindly chasing the golden geese of startup internships and VC funding without deliberating and mapping out the ramifications of their actions. An analyst familiar with humanistic reasoning still reaches conclusions from logic and evidence; however, they crucially have an ability to see the biases and blind spots in their own rational capabilities that poison the foundational links in the logical chain.

The liberal arts are the continuation of an intellectual tradition originally idealized by the Greek notion of paideia, the education of an ideal member of the state. The liberalism of the Enlightenment furthered that central to any educational mission must be prowess in individual analysis. Stanford’s paideia must include assessing how our decisions at work, at home, and at the ballot box affect our neighbors as well as ourselves; meanwhile, it must not succumb to groupthink. It must embrace the Enlightenment tradition of critical thinking and refine our individual capabilities to ethically reason — a focus, as previously stated, primarily on the how and secondarily on the what

A friend of mine in Turkey ossified the critical nature of this task for me during my last visit to the country several years ago, in the wake of its most recent coup but still predating its dramatic slide into autocracy, when she gravely turned to me and said, “They told us not to waste our time with arts, literature or politics, that we needed engineers who could build real things. Look at us now.” So as we continue to discuss and implement changes to our liberal arts requirements, let her words serve as a reminder that even established, supposedly stable democracies cannot afford to fail in the quest for true paideia.

Contact Christian Martin at cgmartin ‘at’

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