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At Stanford's humanities camp, participants focus on critical thinking skills

Innovative education program introduces high school students to the challenges and rewards of humanities scholarship at the university level.

L.A. Cicero High school students at a table with with Stanford Professor Dan Edelstein (standing) and resident counselor Nathan Lindborg at the Summer Humanities Institute.

Rachel Baron, Ryan Lee, Abby Coleman, Sean Watson and John Pitre participate in a small group discussion with Stanford Professor Dan Edelstein (standing) and resident counselor Nathan Lindborg at the Summer Humanities Institute.

An intensive study of the American and French revolutions might seem like unusual summer camp fare, but the high school students who attended Stanford's first Summer Humanities Institute embraced the mini-college experience – boosting their critical-thinking skills and learning what it would be like to study history, philosophy and literature at the university level.

For three weeks this summer, 50 high school students from across the country immersed themselves in university-level humanities coursework. Led by Stanford faculty members Caroline Winterer and Dan Edelstein, the students took part in one of two courses: The Age of Jefferson or Revolutions.

Through a combination of faculty lectures, discussion sections led by graduate student teaching assistants, and research and reading assignments, the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute (SSHI) introduced the students to the university format of humanities instruction.

In designing the program with Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies, Debra Satz, senior associate dean for the humanities at Stanford, wanted to give high school juniors and seniors the chance to explore the big questions at the heart of the humanities, such as "How and when can ideas transform society?" and "When is the use of force legitimate?"

In addition to giving participants an "amazing intellectual experience," Satz is hopeful SSHI will also put Stanford on their list of places to study the humanities when it comes time to apply for college.

Taught by Edelstein, associate professor of French, the Revolutions course had students making connections between the revolutions of the past and the current revolutionary spirit in the Middle East.

He said students were interested in the role technology played, "not only today with Facebook or Twitter, but also in the past with print material and letter writing."

Through the study of Jefferson's life, travels and writings, students in Winterer's course, The Age of Thomas Jefferson, explored one of the most transformative periods in American and European history.

Winterer, professor of history, said her students regularly raised issues that involved what scholars call "textual reception." In other words, "How can we gauge the influence that one text had on another – such as the influence of Common Sense on the Declaration of Independence, written just six months later?" she explained.

The group of students, Winterer said, "has been a factory of insightful questions and observations."

Claire Rydell, a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford and one of the SSHI teaching assistants, said that seeing students go from never having had a discussion section to being able to engage their fellow students in a serious conversation about difficult texts "was something extraordinary to witness."

L.A. CiceroRachel Baron, Ryan Lee and Abby Coleman participate in a small group discussion activity in the Summer Humanities Institute.

Rachel Baron, Ryan Lee and Abby Coleman participate in a small group discussion activity in the Summer Humanities Institute.

During the third week, all of the students took what they had learned and applied it to an original research project. Produced with guidance from their professors, graduate students and writing mentors, the 10-page papers gave students a chance to develop their own answers to the central questions that are addressed by the humanities.

"We want to see the students show us how big ideas can be grasped through small details, and that they understand how historical context can change the meaning of an event," said Edelstein. "Despite common appearances, cutting the head off of a king in 1649 isn't the same as guillotining a king in 1793."

Angela Shiau, a senior from Irvine, Calif., said that for her, learning how to write "an analytical research paper at a more advanced level than what we have been writing in high school" was the most important aspect of the institute.

The students lived and studied together in undergraduate dorms for the duration of the course. Anna Nason, a senior from Reno, Nev., said that by creating an environment where students were able to "eat, sleep and play together," the participants were able to "collaborate on the material and apply it to our own worlds."

Mini-college experience

Edelstein noted that many of the students commented on how his lectures differed from what they experienced in high school classes.

Rather than just trying to impart information, Edelstein said he aimed to teach students "to form their own opinions and to develop arguments about the information." Edelstein explained that they were asked to formulate hypotheses, test them and revise them if they fail – a process he described as "the essence of research."

After one lecture, Nason said she began to think about aristocracy in the modern world, and how interesting it would be to do research on "how social networking has eliminated some of the social barriers that exist today based on income, gender or education."

Hannah Marcus, a graduate teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in history, worked with Winterer's students.

Marcus said it was "extremely gratifying" to see how appreciative the students were when the teaching assistants pushed them to "think more deeply." Marcus described SSHI as a rare opportunity to teach high school students how to be "effective college students rather than just taking for granted that they have those skills."

A private tour of the Cantor Arts Center and access to rare primary sources in the Special Collections of Stanford's Green Library complemented their coursework.

The Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts (SiCa) co-sponsored a field trip to a performance of the San Francisco Opera, and students also got to explore the Bay Area on a day trip to Capitola.

Many high school students, particularly those outside of California, think of Stanford as the "MIT of the West," said Satz. Students from across the country whose test scores and interests indicated an aptitude for the humanities were invited to apply for the summer session. By proactively reaching out to students and raising awareness of the world-class humanities faculty, Satz hopes to increase the number of undergraduate applicants who want to study the humanities at Stanford.

SSHI is a fee-based program, but funding from the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Office of the Provost enabled the organizers to offer need-blind admission. Satz said she expects the program to continue with expanded course offerings next summer.

Holly Dayton, a junior from Cincinnati, said she applied to SSHI because although summer programs on math or science are prevalent, it's "much harder to find something on the humanities, which encourages critical thinking." Dayton said that she and her classmates had "blossomed and really flourished" during this "unbelievable mini-college experience."

For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu