Blog Post

A History of the Humanities at Stanford (5 of 6)

Graphic design by Sheena Lai; image by Andrew Brodhead.

As readers of the previous reports on the HumCore workshop series will have noted, the first quarter of discussions started with a bang. We discussed questions relating to the global humanities at an international, national, and disciplinary scale. In the second quarter, with some of the major large-scale questions already established, we now had the opportunity to turn inwards to the level of the institution and the individual classroom. On April 19, 2022, Profs. Lora Burnett and Alexander Key (of History and Comparative Literature, respectively) gathered to discuss Stanford’s approach to humanities education, past and present.

Though many of us are frequently concerned with what we’re currently teaching and why, and though we might have strong opinions about what ought to be taught in the coming years, fewer of us have a comprehensive understanding of how the past century of institutional approaches to curriculum design has contributed to our present circumstances. In her talk entitled "Core Concerns: Historicizing Curricular Change at Stanford," Prof. Burnett aimed to speak to just that. Her central thesis, that “the college curriculum always reflects broader currents and social thought,” is deceptively simple, but worth repeating in our era of manufactured political backlash to the supposed deluge of “woke” colleges whose syllabi are dominated by “extreme liberal politics.” Rather, argued Burnett, “the college curriculum is almost never countercultural, even when it seems like it is to people who want to change it. It is usually reflective of the broader culture.”

To illustrate this, Burnett described the changes that Stanford specifically underwent since the beginning of the 20th century, starting with the institution’s establishment in 1891. The only requirement for all students was a single course in English composition; individual faculty determined each student’s course of study as there were no departments. Though this certainly sounds idyllic, this arrangement also reflected pragmatic concerns: Stanford simply didn’t have the infrastructure for anything more formalized. This changed after 1919 and the end of what Burnett called the “Laissez-Faire Era,” as Stanford organized faculty into departments and schools, with the entire college managing undergraduate courses of study.

Through the 1920s, humanities and humanistic social science courses constituted the vast majority of undergraduate course requirements within the then-new quarter system, designed to make better use of Stanford’s facilities and resources. As Stanford (along with peer institutions) faced financial pressure in the mid-1930s following the Great Depression, the total hours devoted to humanistic study began to shrink, and the first Western Civilization courses were introduced in place of previous U.S. and world history requirements. Burnett suggests that this reflects the perception that liberal democratic capitalism was under threat from fascists and communists alike, with Western Civilization representing establishment efforts to counteract this threat.

Of course, everything shifted as the Cold War took hold, with educational institutions all over the country subscribing to the notion of “general education” as necessary for creating a nation of citizens adequately trained to understand and resist foreign threat. As Burnett described it, Stanford followed its peers in attempting to create a curriculum that trod a difficult line between customization and standardization: the goal was to avoid creating either mindless automatons or creative misfits. The result was a fleet of required courses for all majors, ranging from English and Western Civilization to foreign languages; students then chose two further areas of specialization beyond the major, from either the humanities, the social sciences, or the natural sciences. A sense of equality, in which an English major was just as qualified to recognize a foreign threat as an engineering major, was the objective. General education, therefore, was inherently a response to broader cultural and political concerns, rather than a solely student-oriented pedagogical decision.

Against the backdrop of student protests and the push for Ethnic Studies in the 1960s, Stanford conducted a major study of education. In her discussion of the resulting report, Burnett highlighted the strong influence of free-market economics on the language of the findings and recommendations. This was the first moment in Stanford’s history in which now-established free-market concepts, like allowing professors to “compete” for student enrollment, or portraying students as consumers, emerged. Sparking competition between professors was deemed productive for research and teaching. The heavy requirements of previous eras all but disappeared. Western Civilization, curiously, survived, but primarily because it allowed engineering majors to complete the paltry nine hours of social science that they needed to graduate. The 1970s, however, threw a wrench into these new developments: Title VII now ruled that institutions receiving federal funding needed to demonstrate lack of discrimination based on race, sex, or religion, resulting in the scramble for new tenure-track hires and the introduction of identity-based fields of study, such as Chicano, feminist, or Black studies. Yet even this did not push institutional investment in the humanities back to pre-1980s levels. Burnett’s conclusion was straightforward: “As the university became more organized, more systematized, more prescriptive, and more responsive to financial and social pressures,” she argued, “the share of the curriculum that was allocated just to the humanities shrank significantly.” Though this shows little signs of changing, particularly as the humanities today are forced to compete at even higher stakes with STEM fields promising to prep undergraduates for a lucrative career, it is useful to remember that any imagined “golden age” of humanistic flourishing at an institution like Stanford either only truly existed in the 1920s, or has been driven by patriotic, even xenophobic motives since.

This was the theme that Prof. Key took up in his own remarks, beginning with the comment that “when it comes to humanities education, we're always talking about deeply held underlying values and beliefs—beliefs that one could call theological.” He referred back to the opening workshop of Winter Quarter, in which Habib University’s Prof. Muhammad Haris rhetorically asked what kind of national inheritance Pakistani academics had to contend with. “So,” Key asked, “what is that inheritance for us at Stanford today?”

Without missing a beat, Key answered his own question by citing the Anglo-American Empire and the settler colonial project that is the modern United States. When we turn to Stanford specifically, the legacy of efforts to eradicate the Muwekma-Ohlone people can be seen in street names like Junipero Serra Boulevard and Serra Mall (now renamed to Jane Stanford Way); the past investment in eugenicist research and education shows up in buildings named for David Starr Jordan, Ray Lyman Wilbur, and Ellwood Cubberley. Unfortunately, attempts to center these histories within Stanford’s construction of its own narratives do not meet with great success: as Key puts it, “when it comes to humanities education [...] on a pragmatic level [there isn’t] much future in trying to persuade one's university that it should teach a history of itself as a story of violent racists. True as that may be historically,” Key continued, “it's a hard sell as a value, that we should be honest about what made this institution exist on this piece of land in California.”

If the purpose of a humanities education is not to guide students into reckoning with their institutional inheritance, what is it? Key considered an oft-mentioned idea, that of progress: of the humanities as a means to cope with disaster, or to understand the teleology of the university through to the present day, which offers a slight contrast to Prof. Najeeb Jan’s suggestion that we rethink the global humanities as a far less linear global brutalities. The problem with either extreme stance, Key argued, is that it is too easy to disagree—not everyone sees the world through the rose-tinted glasses of progress, but neither does everyone buy into the idea that the world is only getting worse—making administrators wary of subscribing to any particular doctrine that would at least give the global humanities a strong institutional identity.

These debates, Key went on to suggest, are nonetheless central to our work as educators in the humanities. Acknowledging the complexities of these tensions also allows us to understand the nuances of continuing to teach various iterations of Western Civilization courses. “On the one hand,” Key began, “Western Stanford exists as and in Western Civ. It represents Anglo settler colonialism. It represents an Anglo project on the Western shores of the North Americas. We have the statues, we have the art gallery. We have Rodin in the quad. There's no question,” he stated, “that we are living in Western Civ.”“At the same time,” he went on, “[...] our global and diverse faculty [...] doesn't all subscribe to this project, and our diverse student body [...] also doesn't subscribe to this project, but is constantly in tension with it. It's both inevitable and inevitably contested.” One way educators have attended to this tension has been the inclusion of feminist and anti-colonial interlocutors like Cesaire, Fanon, and Baldwin alongside “the canon of great dead white men of Europe and North America and their interlocutors,” not because they represent some model of diversity, but because these writers themselves engaged with and critiqued the typical “Western Civ” canon until the canonical discourse extended to include its own criticism. But this approach retains Western Civ as the default primary interlocutor.

A program like HumCore, Key argued, must contain the study of Western Civ, because to do otherwise would be to wilfully ignore the very forces that led to Stanford itself sitting atop colonially plundered land. Western Civilization should be taught here not because of any “essential truth that it speaks to,” but because it acknowledges “the reality of a certain imperial project that we exist in institutionally” and that we cannot opt out of. This does not mean insisting upon a singular pedagogical or methodological framework or even a single canon: in Key’s view, sacrificing conformity across seminars, courses, and instructors is likely to encourage a diversity of thought which students from a variety of backgrounds will find engaging and accessible. As Vered Shemtov described in a previous workshop, the HumCore structure of grouping seminars together in clusters with a weekly shared plenary creates a shared discourse—specific to the institution and moment in which it takes place—without putting any particular historical or geographical story at the center.

Much of the ensuing discussion involved taking these ideas and contextualizing them within current labor conditions and the U.S. political climate, particularly at large state institutions that, as Prof. Burnett argued, are much more representative of changes within higher education than Stanford. If, for example, the state of Texas makes U.S. history courses elective where they had previously been required in order to punish institutions teaching ethnic and feminist studies, “that will do more to kill the humanities than any curricular change at Stanford or anywhere else.” Burnett provided a welcome, if chilling, reminder to those of us who lose ourselves in pedagogical debates that “internecine warfare among professors about how to teach reading a text, or what texts we should teach students to read, are a welcome side show for people who are really looking to just gut the entire prospect of humanistic education.”

While these workshops encourage us to eschew easy answers about what, precisely, the intended purpose of a humanistic education ought to be, it is nonetheless essential to remember that curriculum design has always reflected broader political concerns. This is particularly necessary to bear in mind right now: given the current political climate around humanities and social sciences education at both the high school and college levels, endless debates about how to structure our courses may backfire when we find ourselves, suddenly, with no students left to teach. No amount of debate over perfect methodologies and curated syllabi will be able to undo that.

The discussion continues on the next post, available here.

Chiara Giovanni's picture
Chiara Giovanni is a PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. She holds a PhD Minor in Anthropology. Chiara concurrently holds a SIGF and a DARE Fellowship; she has also been a El Centro Chicano Y Latino Graduate Scholar In Residence and a Haas Center Graduate Public Service Fellow. Her greatest joy at Stanford has been co-founding Humanities in Color, a graduate student organization for humanists of color. Her writing can be found at the TinyLetter link. Prior to coming to Stanford, Chiara completed her undergraduate and master's training at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. After graduating with her PhD in 2023, Chiara will join Bain & Company as a Consultant.