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Rachel Maddow urges students to master the art of argument in her first return to Stanford

Stanford alumna and MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow insists that an education in the humanities is a crucial asset in today's job market, illustrating with her own story how the ability to make good arguments and write well powered her career in advocacy, activism and the national media.

Charles Russo Rachel Maddow at podium

Speaking to members of the Stanford community, Rachel Maddow said that her education in the humanities was indispensable to her past and present success in advocacy and activism.

Asked by students what kind of major she looks for in a successful job candidate, Rachel Maddow, the popular television host and best-selling author, did not hesitate in her answer. "I look for people who have done mathematics. Philosophy. Languages.

"And really," she concluded, "History is kind of the king."

After earning her bachelor's degree from Stanford in public policy in 1994 and winning a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, Maddow spent the next decade raising awareness about HIV/AIDS and fighting for health reform in British and American prisons. She said to make an impact in the world and to change hearts and minds, she needed to know how to convince others and how "to make good arguments."

And that meant knowing how to write well. On Saturday, during an evening conversation with students and other Stanford affiliates, Maddow said that an education in a humanities subject was indispensable to her past and present success in advocacy and activism. The event was organized by Stanford's "Ethics in Society" program.

While a student at Stanford, Maddow took numerous classes in humanities subjects, including philosophy and history. It was at Stanford, she said, that she learned how to structure and present a persuasive argument.

In today's tough job market, she said, perfecting this skill is a must.

"Most people can't write," she said. "Only one in 50 resumes is somebody who can write."

Poor reasoning is not a winning argument, neither for employment nor, in fact, for anything in life. Learning how to write a resume that reasons its way from A to B to C to D is very important, she said. And this, she insisted, is the skill taught in the humanities.

Studying the humanities in Silicon Valley

At Stanford, only about 9 percent of undergraduate students major in a humanities subject – a surprisingly low number given a world-class faculty and programs that consistently rank among the top three in the country. Many incoming students are drawn to the boom in Silicon Valley and a career in the technology sector. In past years, the largest and fastest growing major on campus has been computer science, with class enrollments frequently exceeding 1,000 students.

Maddow, who noted that she likes "techies," sees great value in an education in technology and engineering.

Charles RussoRachel Maddow, right, with Rob Reich, associate professor of political science.

Rachel Maddow, right, with Rob Reich, associate professor of political science.

But she also insisted that an education in the humanities is equally, if not more, important. "We need people who are good at explaining facts, who are good at editing, and who can visualize things in creative ways. We need good artists and we need good writers."

Above all, she said, we need people who can create things, who can come up with new content.

"It's not to say that technological innovation is not a creative enterprise," she added. "Google changed the world, absolutely. But it didn't make the world. It organized it.

"And that's great, but if you're not creating things, and all you do is organize other people's stuff, then you're Wikipedia. And Wikipedia is awesome, but who is going to write the stuff that goes into Wikipedia?"

Nonetheless, Maddow praised technology for revolutionizing the way people can access content and locate facts: "The landscape for new cultural creation has never been richer because of technological and organizational advances."

In the end, however, content creators win the day. "I need good writers rather than good web designers. And they are much harder to find."

A career in activism

Ever since she arrived at Stanford, Maddow has been a passionate activist for gay rights causes and national health care reform. As one of only two openly gay students in her undergraduate cohort, Maddow experienced first-hand the profound alienation from society that gay people faced at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She quickly became engaged in numerous AIDS-related organizations and eventually wrote an honors thesis on the dehumanization of HIV/AIDS victims.

More recently, Maddow has revisited the dehumanization of marginalized groups in American society, especially the gulf between civilians and soldiers  who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In her new best-selling book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, she highlights how the alienation felt by many veterans today approaches the experience of AIDS victims during the 1990s.

Americans do not share in the sacrifices made by U.S. armed forces, she said.

"Going to war, being at war, should be painful for the entire country, from the start. Freedom isn't free shouldn't be a bumper sticker – it should be a policy," she writes in Drift (Crown Publishers, 2012).

At its core, Maddow's argument is a deeply historical one. Drift, she said, tells the story of how the nation has drifted away – both for economic and political reasons – from the constitutional mechanisms that govern engagement in war.

Advice for Stanford's students

Over the remainder of the evening, Maddow shared life lessons with students in the audience.

She encouraged undergraduates to major in something that is not interdisciplinary and instead to "dive deep into one single subject" at least once before completing college. Writing an honors thesis, for example, teaches the analytical rigor of long-form writing, a first and crucial step to learning how to be persuasive.

Asked about her experience in coming out as an openly gay student, Maddow responded that she thought of it as an ethical responsibility. "If you come out, you are making the same step marginally easier for others, as others did before you.

"If you do not pay that back to the universe, then the universe Will. Kick. Your. Ass."

Benjamin Hein is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

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