At Oxford, a student who writes well, speaks persuasively, and engages in critical conversation is considered “smart,” regardless of which college they belong to or what degree they are pursuing. The realization that this kind of liberal arts intellectualism is a central value here in Oxford shocked me. And that shock was deeply unsettling, because I realized I do not feel that way at Stanford. I do love the vibrancy of the Stanford community—the exciting fast-paced focus on innovation and progress. But my Oxford experience has revealed what is missing for me in Stanford.
First, the facts. Approximately 70 per cent of Oxford undergraduates read for humanities degrees. At Stanford, only 15 per cent of students major in the humanities. This difference speaks to an ongoing transformation in American education and culture: humanities programs, once the mainstay of a liberal arts education, now face a crisis of underenrollment at US universities.
Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford perhaps represents the extremity of a national shift in education towards science, technology, mathematics and engineering (STEM). In the New York Times article “Humanities Committee Sounds an Alarm” Jennifer Schuessler attributes the resounding decline in humanities majors to “the entrenched idea that the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment minded students can ill afford.”
I agree, in part, but students’ valid fears of job insecurity fall short of entirely accounting for the phenomenon at Stanford. Campus culture and social climate is impactful; at Oxford, academic culture plays a key role in keeping the humanities alive, whereas at Stanford, the laser focus on the quantifiable value of a college degree undermines the very legitimacy of the choice to major in a humanities subject.
The Stanford students I interviewed for this article agree that humanities students are often stereotyped and “othered” at Stanford. At best, the choice to major in the humanities earns regard as “interesting” while lacking in job prospects; at worst, humanities students are deemed frivolous and inferior.
Religious Studies and Philosophy double major Allison Zilversmit bluntly states, “Stanford is anti-intellectual.” She further postulates, “The humanities are dying at Stanford because they aren’t just a tool for your next job… they aren’t seen as having utility.” Kiley Samson, a Stanford Physics major, similarly commented that Stanford students consider the question “will this class be useful for me after Stanford?” above all else when deciding on their coursework, and by extension, their major. Lingxiao Li, a Math and Computer Science double major, agreed, adding that intellectual growth is not the central focus for many Stanford students. “I have friends who are like mercenaries,” he said, frowning. “They do not care about what they learn. They just want to get a degree and make money.”
These reflections echo the fear of job insecurity emphasized in the Times article, but also illustrate a regrettable cultural and economic sea change in how higher education is valued. Learning for the sake of learning, a once vaunted ideal, now seems quaintly elitist. While all the STEM students declared that the humanities remain important, they confirmed the dismissal and even denigration of “liberal arts intelligence” at Stanford, despite the university’s increased effort to celebrate and enshrine academic diversity.
Both Stanford students and Oxford students described a starkly different cultural and academic climate at Oxford. Owen Rappaport, a Classics major at New College, remarked, “in my mind, the fundamental part of Oxford intellectual life is around a dinner table.” This assertion underscores the importance placed on rhetorical ability at Oxford.
When I asked Walter Goodwin, a Biomedical Engineering major at Brasenose College, what sort of intelligence is highly valued here, he responded similarly with, “the ability to coherently create arguments.” He continued, “intelligence is someone’s persuasive logic based on their understanding of the topic under discussion.”
When comparing Stanford and Oxford, Zilversmit, a term-long Brasenose student like myself, agreed that Oxford students care deeply about intellectual discourse and rhetorical ability, while many Stanford students “don’t know how to disagree.” She reflected, “It’s really remarkable that I’ll be in class and start discussing something with someone and they will almost get off ended, as if I am contradicting their ‘right answer’ in favor of ‘my right answer.’ Ideally, the goal might never be about finding the ‘right answer;’ it is about engaging in discourse, and that engagement is the right answer.” Most Oxford students would probably agree with her.
Both Goodwin and Rappaport also noted how, compared to Stanford students, Oxford students seem far less focused on extra-curricular activities, resume building, and the necessary “applicability” of one’s degree. Goodwin observed that “in the States, the pursuit of extra-curriculars is given far more priority… and you have to do them rather artificially because it is almost a requirement [to get a job].”
Samson’s answer to the question “what sort of intelligence is highly valued at Stanford,” affirms Walter’s assessment. She described the epitome of intelligence at Stanford as “extra-curricular intelligence”—not only performing well in difficult classes, but also doing research and presenting it at international conferences, or founding one’s own business.
Some might be familiar with the 2015 Atlantic article “Rich Kids Study English,” which discussed a research group’s finding that “the amount of money a college student’s parents make … correlate[s] with what that person studies. Kids from lower income families tend toward “useful” majors, such as computer science, math, and physics. Those whose parents make more money flock to history, English, and performing arts.”
In the United States, students from low income and middle class backgrounds often face the daunting burden of student loans in addition to familial pressure to earn highly right out of college. Introducing the Atlantic article in the course of my interviews brought confirmation of such views. Samson asserted that, yes, wealthy students can indeed afford to major in the humanities because “they have something to fall back on,” a statement Zilversmit did not argue with.
Samson affirmed the researchers’ findings, commenting that “as someone coming from a lower socioeconomic background, I don’t think I could ever justify to myself the possibility of having two years without … a steady job or plan.” Both Goodwin and Rappaport commented that, while the “Rich Kids Study English” finding is probably to some degree true at Oxford, it is likely less significant. Walter explained that “the student loan system is so much more secure here that there is never any fear that you will be lumped with some kind of unpayable debt… there’s no reason to be afraid.”
So why are humanities important? Many argued that if we do not study the history, literature, and philosophy that form the cornerstones of our society, we risk forsaking consciousness altogether. But perhaps most unique and memorable was Goodwin’s testimony averring the importance of the humanities: “We have reached a point in technological innovation where the questions we need to be asking are again philosophical. Science and technology has solved so many of humanity’s problems, but now technology itself is becoming a problem, and that is a reality that humanities students and philosophical thinkers are going to need to tackle.”
I applied to Stanford as a likely English or History major, yet I declared to major in Human Biology. While I wish I could proclaim with full conviction that my decision was based entirely upon newfound interest and passion, I cannot. If Stanford’s undergraduate culture had encouraged me to feel that English and History majors are uniquely positioned to understand and thereby change the world, I likely would not have majored in Human Biology.
That said, I don’t regret my decision. I value the Human Biology Core, and had I not temporarily lost contact with the humanities, I might never have recognized their indelible importance to me. Thankfully, my time at Oxford has assured me that an education in the humanities will only increase my chance of contributing meaningfully to the communities where I work. Now, I must find a way to stay faithful to this creed back on the Stanford campus.