A Recommitment to the Humanities

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

One of the first columns I wrote for this magazine when I became president more than six years ago was on the importance of the humanities in a Stanford education. Certainly this is not a new perspective at Stanford. This area of scholarship—defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “learning or literature concerned with human culture”—has long been at the center of undergraduate learning, dating back to the founding grant.

Two major factors have influenced the direction of our efforts in the humanities since I wrote that column. First, we received a magnificent pledge of $400 million from the Hewlett Foundation in 2001, most of which was targeted to support the School of Humanities and Sciences. That pledge, which was fulfilled in 2006, has enabled a variety of enhancements related to education and research in humanistic disciplines, including new funding for: the Bing Overseas Studies Program, the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West and a number of new faculty positions within the humanities.

The second factor is our concentrated effort to enhance the role of multidisciplinary research and teaching throughout the University. At the heart of this direction are several major multidisciplinary initiatives, including one in the arts, which encourage faculty to cross school and department boundaries to address pressing challenges in an increasingly complex and globalized world. The arts and humanities can play a key role in bridging global cultures and perspectives, as well as helping address ambiguity and complexity that are central in so many aspects of human relationships.

Humanities disciplines also bring critical perspectives to our search for new insights on global problems. For example, in the environmental area, questions of intergenerational responsibility and global ethics must be central to the debate about our shared responsibility for the ecosystem. Reforming public policies in developing countries in areas such as the economy, representative government, health care, education and immigration must take into account the history, religion and culture of a region.

As part of our effort to strengthen the humanities and build new collaborations, we have made some significant announcements in the past few months that I hope will help encourage even more creativity and innovation in the humanities at Stanford.

Because of external government and corporate funding, most faculty in the University have a small amount of discretionary funding to support their research, including supporting travel or book purchases, but these funds are almost absent for scholars in the humanities. In November, I informed the Faculty Senate of a new five-year pilot program that will ensure that every tenured and tenure-track faculty member in the humanities has a minimum of $5,000 in discretionary funding available to support their research every year.

In December, Stanford announced that University of Chicago Provost Richard P. Saller will be the next dean of Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences. A history and classics professor, Saller displayed exceptional talent as provost at Chicago. His broad perspective provides him with wonderful background to lead the school that educates the majority of our students.

In January of this year, I announced the creation of the Presidential Fund for Innovation in the Humanities, a $1.1 million program to fund collaborative, multidisciplinary projects. A committee will award “seed fund” grants to do one-year exploratory work as well as project grants supporting faculty teams for projects of several years’ duration.

One early effort, which might be a prototype for what we envision, aims to bring together medievalists from a range of departments, including music, history, English and religious studies, to build a new research and education program on medieval and early modern studies. By re-examining the so-called Dark Ages, scholars have been able to understand how human civilization developed between the end of the Roman era and the Renaissance, replacing a simplified model of overnight rediscovery and rebirth with a more nuanced understanding of how the arts and learning flourished during that period.

One of our country’s leading humanists, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, once said, “I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities.”

At Stanford, we have decided not to leave this critical aspect of a student’s education to accidents of birth or astrological fate. As I told the Faculty Senate in November, we live in a time when the challenges of the world will make humanities as important as they have ever been, if not more important. Stanford intends to keep the promise of the founders and meet its commitment to creating cultured and useful citizens in the service of humanity.