Is it now 'uncool' to major in the humanities?

Follow your bliss and take a few chances, say Stanford deans of business, law, medicine and education.  Sometimes it looks like "you have been building your CVs since you were 4 years old," added law school's Larry Kramer.

Photos by L.A. Cicero Deborah Stipek and Larry Kramer

Education Dean Deborah Stipek and law school Dean Larry Kramer.

As the world looks to science and technology for its future, is an art or literature major toxic? Is it poison, particularly, if you intend to go on to law school, business school, med school or even education? Or even if you plan to be employed at all?

In hard economic times, humanities must justify their worth. And four Stanford deans gathered Tuesday to defend the humanities in the face of declining interest and enrollment in those subjects.

Law school Dean Larry Kramer, business school Dean Garth Saloner, education Dean Deborah Stipek, and Charles Prober, senior associate dean for medical education, spoke to Stanford sophomores Tuesday at an event moderated by Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education.

But perhaps it was a sign of the times that the room was only about half full.

One sophomore, Victoria Yee, an Asian American studies major from Southern California, asked why the humanities are commonly seen as a dead-end to a bright future.

Kramer said the decline was part of broader, shifting cultural tends. When he attended college, he said, it was "completely uncool" to major in something other than the humanities – for example, to major in science or engineering.

The shift started in the 1980s, he said, with an increased focus on economic development and personal wealth.

When Elam asked how the humanities had affected the deans' own educational experience, Kramer said he began taking law courses under duress, because "my mother was so on my back to do something," while he was trying to be a writer.

"I thought I was OK. I wasn't," he said.

One of his experimental law courses, taught by former U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, "essentially started with a debate about 'might makes right'" – winding from Socrates to Roe v. Wade, with Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes in between, bringing together the worlds of philosophy, education, business.

Kramer was sold.  He became Levi's assistant.

Garth Saloner and Charles Prober

Business school Dean Garth Saloner and Charles Prober, senior associate dean for medical education.

Stipek, a specialist in early childhood development who had been a psychology major, recalled a formative period studying in Geneva with the renowned psychologist Jean Piaget, examining the intersection between psychology and philosophy.

Prober said he had been set on becoming a lawyer, and desisted when he found that "law doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

He entered med school at a time you didn't need a previous degree, and admitted he discovered great literature late in life.

"Boy, I wish I'd gotten into this at 18 or 19," he said. "It's really, really enriching."

Saloner emphasized the "extraordinary thing about this university" is the high number of joint or dual degrees, and project teams across schools, a point emphasized by the other deans as well.

He refuted the myth that business school applicants should have a background in banking or consulting on their résumés.  He said that successful recent applicants included a candy store owner, a professional ballerina, a professional basketball player, a TV producer and a wind farm developer.

Nearly half the accepted applicants came from the humanities and social sciences. Undergraduate majors had included archaeology, American studies, Asian language and culture, ethics, peace and conflict studies, rhetoric and urban studies.

In a theme that was repeated by the others, he said, "we look for individuals who have the potential to have a major impact on the world."

Kramer said the law school favors applicants who are "the most interesting, most inquisitive, most ambitious," but that one skill from the humanities is imperative: 

"Writing skills are absolutely critical," he said. "That's true for any profession."

Taking a "gap year" for travel or independent study before entering graduate school has become fashionable, and Prober and others stressed using the time "to do something you care deeply about," rather than making it the subject of shrewd calculations for polishing an application. The students were even encouraged to take a few chances.

Kramer said the law school applications were "humbling on paper" compared with his own cohort years ago.  However, it often appears as if "you have been building your CVs since you were 4 years old" and that "the route to success is to collect as many gold stars as you can and keep your options open."

Kramer said it was a "horrible" recipe for life.

"At some point you do have to make choices," he said. "It's scary to me how many times the choice has been made by the choices not made."

Stanford President John Hennessy has said he is becoming more concerned about the decreasing interest in the humanities at Stanford and across the country.  He told the Faculty Senate earlier this month that Stanford would take measures "to reignite the exuberance and incredible opportunities that exist and get our students to understand those opportunities."

The Tuesday event was sponsored by the Arts Initiative, the Humanities Center, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, and Undergraduate Advising and Research.