More than any other American institution, Stanford University symbolizes the crisis of relevance the humanities face on modern elite campuses. Unlike its Ivy League peers, Stanford’s founding charter promises to provide an education that will prepare students for “direct usefulness in life.” More than half of Stanford students are pre-med or engineers. The depth of Stanford’s ties to Silicon Valley, and the dominance of campus start-up culture, led The New Yorker to ask breathlessly last year whether Stanford “is still a University.”
It is fitting, then, that Stanford has developed what may be the most ambitious model yet for reinvigorating the humanities in American higher education: “CS+X,” an experimental dual degree program that allows students to earn joint majors in Computer Science and select liberal arts disciplines, including History, English, Philosophy, and Classics. Should CS+X succeed, it could well become a model for universities around the country, many of which are also grappling with a precipitous decline in humanities majors — and increasingly looking to Palo Alto for curricular guidance.
The program has received overwhelmingly positive media coverage, and it’s easy to see why. Higher education experts and journalists have been wringing their hands over the decline of the English major for years, but rarely have any proposals in mind (besides further hand-wringing, combined with some obligatory criticism of careerist millennials). CS+X is one of the first high-profile curricular reforms that actually has a shot at reversing the declining enrollment in liberal arts seminars. Integrating computer science and humanities at the undergraduate level represents a genuine, if partial, solution to the crisis — coming from a university that arguably has the most authority to attempt it, and the most at stake in its success.
So it is important that CS+X succeeds. And by “succeeds,” I don’t just mean “attract a large number of majors” or “produce stimulating interdisciplinary projects” or “graduate literature experts who can code, and computer science gurus who know Shakespeare.” I have little doubt that CS+X will accomplish all of these things, and more.
The real test of the program is whether it can achieve its objectives without altering the meaning of the humanities too radically in the process. If Stanford isn’t careful, CS+X could send the message that the humanities are secondary to technical fields and only worth pursuing for their pre-professional value.
So far, a major selling point for CS+X is that a humanities background will help computer science majors get better jobs and create more profitable startups. Indeed, part of the impetus for the program was reportedly requests from Silicon Valley corporations looking for more well-rounded engineers. The chair of the Stanford Computer Science Department told Inside Higher Education: “Pretty much everyone who majors in computer science at Stanford gets a job, but [CS+X majors] might get more offers.” Similarly, a CS+X promotional video states that “visual arts, empathy and storytelling fuel innovation.”
Stanford students seem excited about CS+X precisely because they think it will enhance their career prospects. In a recent Stanford Daily op-ed entitled “CS-X-traordinary,” one student recounted how he had been unsuccessful at getting a tech job with his Symbolic Systems and Classics double-major, but was optimistic about his chances as a CS+X major. “Not only do the liberal arts set you apart from your religiously tech-y peer,” he wrote, but “they also give you the necessary context to which you can apply your tech-y powers.”
To be sure, preparing for a career in the technology industry is a perfectly legitimate reason to study the humanities. The presence of students with a diversity of aspirations and approaches to the subject matter probably enhances the quality of liberal arts seminars.
But it is important that as Stanford deans and admissions officers begin to tout CS+X to prospective students, they do not portray the program merely as a gateway to Silicon Valley employment. This would send the message that the humanities are the junior partner in the CS+X relationship and symbolically ratify the marginality of the liberal arts at Stanford — thus exacerbating the problem CS+X was intended to solve. You don’t have to be a dreary liberal arts purist to think that Classics, History and Philosophy should be thought of as fields of inquiry worthy of pursuit in and of themselves, even as they adapt to the changing demands of the modern university.
CS+X is an important experiment for American higher education. To maximize the program’s chance of working, Stanford should make a broad case for CS+X, one that emphasizes not only the benefits of the humanities to future engineers, but also the benefits of technology to future poets — and, indeed, the intrinsic benefits of the humanities to civil society and to students’ personal intellectual growth.
There’s no point in having overflowing humanities classes if the students are studying a diminished, hollowed-out subject matter.
Jason Willick, a senior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.