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High school students take a philosophical approach to history and literature at the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute

Youngsters from around the United States experienced the rigors and rewards of college life as they conducted university-level research in humanities courses taught by Stanford faculty.

Mike Abbott Stanford Summer Humanities Institute

Caroline Winterer and Dan Edelstein lead one of the three joint lectures with the 'Age of Jefferson' and 'Revolutions' SSHI classes held in the Stanford Humanities Center.

Kevin Duraiswamy, a high school senior from Los Altos, Calif., and Amelia Roskin, a junior from San Francisco, spent part of their summer conducting college-level research at Stanford.

As students in the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute (SSHI), Duraiswamy and Roskin lived on campus and studied at the Stanford Humanities Center for three weeks. While there, they collaborated with Stanford professors and graduate student teaching assistants on research papers.

Duraiswamy wrote about how ancient Greek and Roman texts influenced the works of Thomas Jefferson. Roskin wrote on philosopher John Rawls' theories as manifested by characters in David Levithan's novel Every Day.

Duraiswamy and Roskin were among 100 high school students who experienced the rigors of college life at the second summer of the Institute.

Designed by Debra Satz, associate dean for the humanities, with Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies, SSHI offered three undergraduate-level courses to high school students from around the country.

The Institute, Satz said, "introduces the students to the numerous resources and fantastic teachers Stanford has in the humanities."

Since the Institute's inception last year, Satz said, the program has gained the attention of more and more high school students.

"The increased interest reflects the growing awareness of Stanford as a great school for studying the humanities and delving into important questions such as the legitimacy of government and the nature of literature and art," Satz said.

Caroline Winterer, a history professor and the new director of the Stanford Humanities Center, and Dan Edelstein, an associate professor of French, returned for the program's second year, teaching The Age of Jefferson and Revolutions, respectively. Responding to increased demand following last year's inaugural session, course offerings grew to include Philosophy and Literature, co-taught by Stanford professors Lanier Anderson (philosophy) and Joshua Landy (French).

Edelstein, the SSHI director, was glad to be back teaching works like Thomas Paine's Common Sense to students who are "remarkably knowledgeable about world history" and curious to know what college is like.

In researching his paper, Duraiswamy studied Jefferson's personal letters.

"I stumbled across something really interesting – Jefferson wanted to use the classics to create an American form of writing distinct from a European style. This desire was part of a larger struggle to shape an American identity," Duraiswamy said.

"This was my first taste of research at the college level, and it has made me more excited for what lies ahead," Duraiswamy said.

Roskin said the professors encouraged her to write about Rawls, even though the philosopher was not covered in class, and helped guide her research. "They spent a great amount of time helping each of us grow as students and people," she said.

A taste of college life

The SSHI students experienced what life as a Stanford undergrad is like, living in undergraduate dorms, eating in dining halls and spending their days in faculty-led lectures and discussion sessions with graduate student teaching assistants.

Natalie Rodriguez-Nelson, a senior from Memphis, Tenn., said that spending so much time together led to close friendships and that she "felt at home surrounded by people who share the same drive to learn all they can about the world."

Each of the professors taught condensed versions of their regular courses. "We taught at the same level of academic rigor and covered the same ground, but adjusted the readings to reflect the shorter time frame," Edelstein said.

The first reading assignment for Philosophy and Literature was excerpts from Proust's Swann's Way and The Captive.

"In spite of how difficult Proust's work is, students fell in love with it," said Anderson, chair of the Department of Philosophy.

Anderson is confident the mini-college experience will inspire the SSHI students to take humanities courses in college, regardless of what they major in. "They will know from their own experience how engaging and enriching humanistic inquiry can be," Anderson said.

Peter Litzow, a high school senior from Mercer Island, Wash., agreed. He used to doubt the practicality of studying the humanities in college, but his doubts have dissipated. "The Age of Jefferson class rekindled my passion for history and re-assured my intentions to study it in college," he said.

Students learned that college-level research requires knowledge of the Stanford library archives and search tools, which they used during the program's third week, dedicated to writing their 10-page papers – a first for many of them, Winterer said.

A mini-college experience also means having fun. Megan Calfas, a senior from Palos Verdes, Calif., recalled that one of her favorite moments was seeing Landy and Anderson "go head to head in a game of cricket outside the dorms after seeing them go head to head in class."

Other outings included trips to the Exploratorium and the de Young Museum in San Francisco and to Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, plus a Stanford Summer Theater performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

Young intellectuals

In addition to Proust, the syllabus for Philosophy and Literature ranged from Shakespeare's Sonnet XXXV to Pride and Prejudice and films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Roskin said Landy's approach to considering what a work does, rather than what it may imply, as high school teachers often ask, spoke to her. "If we only ask about hidden meanings, we can make up morals that aren't there. Asking what literature does is a more substantive question than asking what it might or might not mean," she said.

Landy, who will be the director of Stanford's Structured Liberal Education program beginning in the fall and whose research focuses on the nexus of literature and philosophy, was surprised at the students' confidence and how they "lasered in on the most important and difficult questions that people spend a lifetime studying."

Even the tempting summer sunshine couldn't derail their focus, as students frequently had outdoor discussion sessions going over lectures or developing paper topics.

Stanford President John Hennessy shared his own enthusiasm for the humanities during a visit with the SSHI students.

In an hour-long Q&A session, Hennessy emphasized that philosophy, literature and history help build speaking, writing and analytical thinking skills. "These help people become successful in all fields, even computer science," said Hennessy, who has taught computer science at Stanford.  

Hennessy encouraged students to spend their college years learning, not worrying about life after graduation. "Focus on career once you've finished school," he advised. "The question isn't what will you do the day after college, but rather what will you be doing 10-15 years later? There is plenty of time in life to learn business skills," he said, adding that "college is about learning the skills that will help you become a leader."

Veronica Marian is the communications coordinator for the Stanford Humanities Center.

Media Contact

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu