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Interview with Richard Saller

Don’t Abandon the Humanities

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Don’t Abandon the Humanities

Source:Ming-Tang Huang

Stanford University is renowned for its innovate approach to learning. One of its top educators insists that liberal arts and the humanities are key to higher education, even in this digital age, but admits to still figuring out how to best get the message across.

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Don’t Abandon the Humanities

By Jenny Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 610 )

Stanford University is considered to be at the core of Silicon Valley’s innovation, yet Richard Saller, the dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, feels the area’s high-tech pedigree may be making it harder for students to obtain a balanced education.

As a classicist who has observed the trajectory of history and culture, he now sees the convergence of technology and the humanities as a reality and believes that interdisciplinary programs are needed to prepare students for future challenges and drive good innovation.

A good part of his job is devoted to figuring out how to balance the seemingly competing forces of liberal arts and the sciences and discuss with other schools within the university how to produce the kind of talent that will be best prepared to take on the challenges ahead in the 21st century.  

Having led the School of Humanities and Sciences for 10 years, Saller admits that nobody has all the answers and describes his program as still being in the experimental stage. He is absolutely convinced that sacrificing the liberal arts would be perilous and believes that the technology and the humanities can even be highly complementary and spark innovation, part of the motivation behind his school’s “digital humanities” program.

In the following excerpts of CommonWealth Magazine’s interview with Richard Saller, he explains how he and his university is using the humanities to guide course design and develop digital talent with values and liberal arts talent with computer skills.


The challenge for us will be to educate students about how to use the vast new array of digital tools to answer questions and in thinking about those questions and formulating those questions to have both a sense of history because many of the questions have deep roots.

Just learning coding isn't going to identify what the social problems are that they want to apply those skills to.

I think that there are some exaggerated ideas about what the new computer age can do for us, at least at this point. I think to be reminded of the need for humility about what we don't know is important, so I think educating students in the traditional philosophical curriculum is going to be an important part of education in the 21st century.

I had a meeting with the chairs of the engineering departments last winter and one of the department chairs in engineering said that without the humanities, we run the risk of engineering creating a new Frankenstein.

On helping students cultivate critical thinking along with technical skills through the digital humanities:

I think we can teach our students how to do research in the digital age. Our students come to us realizing that they shouldn't use the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. But beyond that they're really not taught very much about how to assess critically all of the information that they can get online. I think we need to do a better job of that.

In the digital age the visual is going to be proportionately more important than in recent history. One of the things we do for education is we have an older traditional course that all students are required to take in writing and rhetoric. But we've now added on a second course requirement that teaches them about how to do visual presentations.

The digital humanities is an umbrella term for some different things. In its broadest sense it requires applying computational skills to traditional humanities questions.

One way we do this is in the literary lab. The literary lab develops software that allows researchers to ask questions of literary databases that are bigger than any human being could read in a lifetime.

One example from spatial history is Orbis.stanford.edu. This is a map of the ancient Roman Empire. One of the big questions in Roman economic history is how much did it cost to transport goods from one part of the empire to another in the empire. And we don't have direct evidence for that. So this is an online model that models the Roman Empire and uses comparative evidence from pre-modern Europe to estimate what the costs are from one part of the empire to another.

On the need for the humanities and exposing science and engineering students to a more general education:

Around Stanford we hear the word innovation all the time. I think the humanities have the capacity to help innovators discriminate between good innovation and bad innovation. We need students who are educated in history, philosophy, and literature to think about which innovations are good and which are bad.

That happens already, particularly with bioethics in the medical school where they want philosophers to help them make these difficult decisions about life and death. But it's true more broadly; it's just more urgent in cases of medical emergencies.

The important thing is that we give students a lot of different kinds of experiences, both in classes and outside of classes, ranging from discussion seminars about literature to lab experience in biology or physics. The more we broaden the range of approaches, the repertoire of approaches, that a student graduates with, the more chance that she will have the most productive kind of creative thinking when issues come up that we can't even begin to imagine.

One of the reasons the Digital Humanities are so appealing to students is that they get to get into a digital laboratory setting and write code and do things. Just sitting and reading is not what most Stanford students want to do. And then the same thing is true in the arts in product design.

(We also) have a large fund to support undergraduate research. That means that undergraduates in a whole variety of fields can be funded to join labs or research projects in particular areas, and sometimes these students work in labs in fields that have nothing to do with their major. So that's a good way to get them broader exposure.

We have a whole set of graduate fellowships that are specifically set aside for students doing interdisciplinary research. So our requirement is that the dissertation committee be made up of faculty from different departments.

On the importance of computer education and coding at Stanford and finding a balance with the liberal arts:

It's evolving. Right now Stanford is concerned about making sure that we maintain a balanced liberal arts education.  

Almost all of our undergraduates now take some computer science. It's probably around 90 percent of the undergraduates doing an introductory computer science course so they're doing that of their own choice. That’s not a requirement.

Stanford students resent requirements, so better than requiring is developing appealing, attractive programs that they will want to take.

One of the newest innovations we are just now implementing is a new humanities or humanities core. And this is designed to offer students, particularly in engineering but in any field, a way to take a kind of great books' program. And we're going to work with the engineering school to try to get their advisors to encourage students to do this. And this is a more traditional kind of course that is aimed to give engineering education some balance in the humanities.

On how the interdisciplinary concept doesn’t always work:

A couple of years ago quite a lot of attention was given to a new program that we started in a joint major between computer science and humanities. That's turned out not, at this point, to be a success because too few students have signed up. And the reason is because the course requirements are so heavy that it's just not been feasible. So what we've done and I think we'll be more popular is that we've developed a humanities minor, which requires about half the number of humanities courses. We've only just kicked it off so we're not sure but I think it's altogether likely that this will be a way to draw students in.

The other thing that's being discussed now is to offer a master's in computer science for humanities graduates. So build it into a graduate program.

We also have a whole set of institutes that offer faculty funding, particularly for research projects that bring together faculty from different schools or different departments. The most successful of them is the Bio-X Institute. That has an endowed seed fund that encourages the faculty to get together, and the marker of success is that the faculty do that and then if the seed grows they go off and get external funding that is an order of magnitude bigger than the seed grant. And we're doing that in other areas too, in the humanities for example.

On the future of online learning:

I think the predictions about online education have been wildly exaggerated. Let me first say that the value of online education depends on what your comparison point is. If your comparison point is no higher education, it’s better than nothing. If your comparison point is Stanford, it's not.

And I think that there are a couple of reasons. First of all I think the psychologists of education have increasingly told us that that the relationship between teacher and student is important and that's still hard to convey online and certainly in a mass course. The second thing is that at Stanford an awful lot of the student learning takes place outside the classroom; it comes from the community of students. And if you tried to substitute in an education that's completely online it I think it wouldn't have the same value. So for all of the prophecies about the demise of universities as we've known them, there is more demand for good university education than there has ever been. And I don't see why that will change.

On the challenge of promoting interdisciplinary or liberal arts education with Stanford so focused on Silicon Valley:

There is a kind of disconnect that I hear. When I talk to some of the leading figures in Silicon Valley, they talk about the importance of a broad liberal arts education. They talk about the importance of the humanities and the arts. But the students and I think especially their families think that having a computer science degree is the surest way to start a job immediately after graduation with a high salary. And they're actually right about that. What the leaders say yes it may be the best avenue for the highest paying first job but if you want to think about long term career actually a broader education that gets you beyond coding is what you need.

Well I haven't figured out how to make that message credible to students and especially their families because most of the students tell me that they feel pressure from their families about what to major in.

So we're trying to develop a communication strategy that will persuade the public or at least the relevant part of the public that this is true. The other thing that I think we have to do and we have not done yet is develop a good crisp statement about how we see education in the 21st century combining these different modes of thinking and skills in a new way. Too often the talk about the value of humanities is backward looking. And I realize that we need to be forward looking and we are working on formulating that statement but we haven't gotten there yet.

Edited by Luke Sabatier


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