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Two Deans, Two Editorials - Why the Humanities?

Richard Saller, Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and Lloyd Minor, Dean of the School of Medicine both featured in the Opinions section of the Stanford Daily on April 7, 2014.

Enlightenment in Unexpected Places

Humanities and arts (H&A) enrollments have declined over the past decade at Stanford and at our peer institutions. At Stanford, the decline in course enrollments in H&A departments has totaled 10 percent over 10 years, while the number of majors has declined 28 percent. Do these trends matter? Why?

The goal of a Stanford undergraduate education should be to prepare our graduates for fulfilling professional, civic and personal lives. The humanities and arts are essential to all three. For professional (and especially managerial) careers, reading great literature enhances the imagination and develops a more sophisticated “theory of mind” that improves interpersonal skills. Courses in literature, history and philosophy hone analytical and writing abilities, which are sought out by medical, law and business schools in their admissions.

The humanities and arts have utilitarian value, but the case for them does not rest solely on considerations of career. They go right to the heart of the value and meaning of our civic and personal lives. It goes without saying that informed citizens need to know about the historical roots of contemporary problems as well as the cultures, religions and history of other societies. One’s personal life should be grounded in critical reflections about what is worthwhile and just — a principle expressed by Socrates, the founder of European moral philosophy, in his dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The humanities and arts have the potential not only to make a person’s life better in a moral sense but also richer in aesthetic dimensions, as the recent opening of Bing Concert Hall has vividly demonstrated.

What are the implications of this brief justification of the humanities and arts for Stanford education? As a dean, I believe that every Stanford undergraduate should have a serious engagement with the humanities and arts. To my mind, this is a more important aim than increasing the number of majors. And I hope that the engagement will stimulate discussion and exploration beyond the classroom about what it means to lead a purposeful life, how to contribute as a citizen and how to deepen one’s appreciation of beauty.

What practical measures can the School of H&S take to achieve these ends?

First, the departments and faculty have been developing courses of broad interest for non-majors. I was heartened to note that five of The Stanford Daily’s “top ten professors” (Professors Wolff, Applebaum, Nemerov, Campbell and Tobin) teach courses in the humanities and arts. Secondly, some of the core humanities departments have revamped their curricula to give them a clearer structure. Thirdly, in response to the shift in student interest from departmental majors to Interdepartmental Programs within H&S, such as Human Biology, International Relations and Science, Technology, and Society, we are finding ways to fold more humanities courses into these popular programs. Three of the new Faculty Fellows in Human Biology teach literature or philosophy courses on subjects such as near-death experiences and ethics through the life cycle. The International Relations program now offers a specialization in “international history and culture.” New programs combining technical skills with the humanities are under development (a possible minor in digital humanities or joint majors in Computer Science and English).

Finally, while I resist the notion that a Stanford undergraduate education is primarily for vocational ends, I understand the anxieties about careers after graduation. It is important for students and their families to realize that for the great majority of our graduates the bachelor’s degree will not be the end of their education: Professional schools can provide vocational credentials, and humanities majors are strong applicants to professional programs. In addition, Stanford humanities and arts majors are invited to apply for Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Summer Institute for General Management with the possibility of financial aid from the Office of the President beginning in Summer 2014. It is simply a mistake to believe that a humanities major is a professional dead end.

Let me close on a personal note. I started college in an engineering program and was thriving, but then discovered a real passion for Roman history by taking a course to satisfy a distribution requirement. My switch of major to classical history required starting Greek and Latin the next year, followed by doctoral work in Cambridge, England. The job market for Ph.D.s in history was grim in the late 1970s, but I persisted, and the reward has been a career in teaching and research that has been thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. The lesson I would draw is not that all engineers ought to transfer to the humanities as I did (the world would grind to a halt if they did), but that students should explore a wide range of courses to develop multiple ways of thinking and to find their personal passion, which may turn up in unexpected places.


Richard Saller
Dean, College of Humanities and Sciences, Stanford University



The Humanities and Medicine

Education in the humanities is important preparation for a career in medicine. Understanding why begins with an appreciation of the critical role of the humanities in enabling each of us to have a more meaningful, thoughtful and insightful life. Through the study of disciplines such as history, philosophy, religion, literature and languages we have unique opportunities to see the world through the eyes of others who have different cultural, social and ethical backgrounds. In so doing, we gain a better appreciation of diversity and ambiguity.

Examining differences in values and reasoning enables us to reflect thoughtfully on the normative framework we have as individuals and as members of a society. The humanities challenge us to question our assumptions, examine our beliefs and develop new ways of thinking about “conventional” wisdom. This appreciation for other modes of thought enables us to see complexity and uncertainty as key elements in the process toward discovering new truths. When viewed in this context, the journey we travel becomes as important as the destinations we reach.

Education in the humanities also provides us with unique and powerful opportunities to hone our skills of critical analysis and develop clarity of thought and expression. In every pursuit and profession, the expression of ideas is inextricably linked to the formulation of ideas. It is through written and spoken communication that we shape and refine our thoughts.

With this background, we can now inquire as to which of these reasons for studying the humanities are important in preparing for a career in medicine. The unequivocal answer is all of them. Their importance is manifested both in biomedical science and the relationship with and care provided to patients by physicians.

We are in the midst of a biomedical revolution. Multiple scientific disciplines are now focused on questions and problems important to biology and medicine. From genomics to electronic medical records, massive quantities of data about individuals and populations are now available. To obtain meaningful information from these sources requires new processes of analysis based more upon inductive and statistical methods than upon deductive and hypothesis-testing approaches. The nature of truth, the power of these inferences and the actions we should take based upon them are subjects of active discussion among scientists and philosophers alike.

These new challenges and opportunities present a host of ethical dilemmas concerning protection of privacy, consideration of treatment options when knowledge of effects and outcomes is incomplete and ways that risk factors and potential interventions are discussed. We can garner insight into all of these challenging topics from the humanities.



In addition to these questions arising from the rapid expansion of biomedical inquiry and discovery, there are timeless issues concerning the relationship between caregivers and our patients. Scientific advances have improved our ability to prevent and to treat many conditions, but the list of maladies for which scientifically based approaches is either incomplete or inadequate remains longer than the list of those successfully ameliorated by modern medicine.

Consider the child with autism or the adult with Alzheimer’s disease. A physician can make a diagnosis but cannot offer a cure or a satisfying answer to the question “why?” Even for conditions that we can prevent or treat, patient behavior can significantly impact the success or failure of an intervention. For the hypertensive patient, no amount of prescribed medication will impact the social factors that may be inhibiting lifestyle modification. The specificity of scientific interventions does not account for the messiness of human life.

We as physicians heal best when we listen to and communicate with our patients and seek to understand the challenges they face in their lives. The perspectives on illness, emotions and the human condition we gain from literature, religion and philosophy provide us with important contexts for fulfilling these roles and responsibilities.

In the end, this may be the most compelling reason why the humanities are important preparation for a career in medicine. Through the humanities, physicians and scientists can gain a more complete view of what it means to be human. Across time and space, we have turned to the humanities to find insight into age-old questions and to live more meaningful and thoughtful lives. In this biomedical revolution, we need the humanities now more than ever.


Lloyd B. Minor, M.D.
Dean, Stanford University School of Medicine