New Stanford course focuses on humanities’ ‘dangerous’ ideas

Equality, evil, progress and tradition were some of the big concepts Stanford professors examined in Dangerous Ideas, a new humanities course held in spring quarter.

A harmonious piano tune filled a lecture hall in the Lane History Corner one spring evening.

Minutes later, the pleasant music was replaced by loud, screechy bangs and howling. The digital sounds emanated from footage of music Professor Mark Applebaum playing the mouseketier, an electroacoustic instrument he invented.

“I don’t know if you noticed, but this sounds different than the piano,” said Applebaum, his voice rising over the sound, to a packed auditorium of more than 150 grinning students.

Debra Satz at a lectern

Debra Satz, professor of philosophy and senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, is co-developer of Dangerous Ideas, a course that seeks to expose students from different disciplines to humanistic ideas and scholarship. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Contrasting the two instruments, Applebaum invoked the ideas of tradition and progress and challenged their definitions and perceptions. As a composer, Applebaum said he is only concerned with progress or improvisation, but as an educator, he has to apply tradition and the fundamentals of music.

“So, tradition: enemy of progress? Or progress: enemy of tradition?” Applebaum asked. “Of course, we can go either way with these. And are they really opposite words?”

Applebaum’s lecture was a part of a new humanities course that was offered in spring quarter. The 1-unit course, Dangerous Ideas, consisted of lectures centered on important concepts that have shaped today’s human world, such as equality, evil, freedom and censorship.

Each week, a professor from a different department at the School of Humanities and Sciences tackled a particular idea and facilitated a discussion with students. The faculty represented the departments of Philosophy, English, History, Classics, Art and Art History, Music, and East Asian Languages and Cultures.

Engaging with the humanities

Debra Satz, a professor of philosophy and senior associate dean for the humanities and arts, and Jeffrey Schwegman, humanities and arts initiatives coordinator, developed the course as a way to expose students from different disciplines to humanistic ideas and scholarship.

“This is part of our bigger effort to create engaging humanities-related classes and to bring out more Stanford students to those ideas and fields,” Schwegman said.

Michael Mellody, a first-year student in the Graduate School of Business, took the course with several fellow MBA students. Mellody, who earned his bachelor’s degree in English, said he appreciated the opportunity to openly discuss unconventional thoughts and ideas.

“It’s very difficult to have nuanced conversations about dangerous ideas in the popular media now,” Mellody said. “Everything is being painted with broad strokes and ideas are quickly politicized.”

Mellody said he especially liked Applebaum’s lecture and how he presented the ideas of tradition and progress.

“The way he tied some of those concepts together, contradicting himself at times, encouraged the audience to be skeptical of what he is saying,” Mellody said. “It kept the audience on their toes.”

Meg Saunders, who is entering her sophomore year in the fall, said she took the course to explore subjects in the humanities. Still undecided about her major, Saunders said she is drawn to humanities but is also interested in computer science and psychology.

She said she enjoyed the breadth of subjects discussed during the course.

“I liked that it was a 1-unit class, but you got a lot out of it. You got to be exposed to a lot of different ideas,” Saunders said.

Kat Gregory, a graduate student in computer science, took Dangerous Ideas while serving as a teaching assistant in the Computers, Ethics and Public Policy course.

Gregory said she particularly liked lectures from philosophy Professors R. Lanier Anderson and Christopher Bobonich, which revolved around philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas on morality. She said the lectures bolstered her already simmering interest in philosophy and ethics.

“CS is often very applied, and that’s great. But we live in a time when our ability to create outpaces our ability to think things through,” she said. “Many of the tensions and questions raised by philosophers who wrote long ago remain highly relevant to our world today.”

Gregory said she often remained after the lectures ended to interact more with professors and students. She said she hopes to take more philosophy courses in the future.

Dangerous Ideas is planned to be offered again in the 2017-2018 academic year, Schwegman said.