July 22, 2020
During an unusually and extraordinarily challenging five months—for our school, for our country, for our interconnected world, and for all of us—you have helped sustain our core mission by continuing to produce superb scholarship and teaching. I know this has not been easy. You have had to grapple with uncertainty, the increased burdens of childcare and parenting, isolation, illness, and an upturning of all usual routines. I want to acknowledge your burdens and efforts and to assure you that what you have done is important.
Indeed, the last five months have also provided ample evidence that the research and teaching you do matters. From your research on racial disparities in health and wealth, to your studies on the future of work, to your probing the deepest secrets of nature and the universe, all of you enrich our world. While we may not be physically together again for some time, we are a community of scholars. I am grateful to all of you.
Next academic year, which is an election year, I’d like to showcase, and bring to bear, the expertise within H&S on contemporary problems for democracy.
Democracy around the world, including in the United States, is a tremendous historical achievement, but it also faces significant challenges. From the enduring racial inequality that undergirds Black Lives Matter to a pattern of economic growth that leaves so many Americans behind, our democracy faces what some have gone so far as to call an “existential threat.”
Many of our shared political institutions are failing to respond to the major challenges our society faces: poverty; economic, racial, and political inequality; climate change; unemployment; and a major pandemic. Basic goods such as health care, access to college, physical safety, and housing are out of reach for too many of our compatriots. For millions of Americans, faith in the inevitability of a better future has been called into question.
This is, of course, not the first time that democracy has been in trouble. It fell apart 2,400 years ago in Ancient Greece. It nearly died around the world in the late 1930s and 40s. And as Jill Lepore reminded me in her article “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died” in the New Yorker, during that time of crisis, people talked about democracy, argued about democracy, and tried to fix it.
Scholars were called on to contribute to newspapers and magazines to argue about democracy’s meaning, its future, and its promise; and so too were groups of citizens engaged in stretching their participatory muscles. The challenges our democracy faces also present opportunities for reflection, change, and engagement.
Consider questions such as: can you have democracy without some commitment to truth and a shared reality? Are there economic preconditions for a functioning democracy, and if so what are they? What is the role of expertise in democratic decision-making? Are our elections fair? How can we address a degree of political polarization which prevents national solutions to public problems? How can police brutality be stopped? Does globalization constrain the scope of democracy? How might technology be harnessed to strengthen democratic decision-making? What motivates strangers to cooperate with one another?
As Lepore observes, “It is a paradox of democracy that the best way to defend it is to attack it, to ask more of it, by way of criticism, protest, and dissent.” We have experts across our departments and programs who can address these and other questions.
The school will showcase a series of events this fall—panels, talks, and debates—drawing on the expertise of our Stanford faculty. We will host ten “big events” in fall quarter, offered for all members of the Stanford community. We will also simultaneously offer this series as a one-unit course for undergraduate students. Videos of the events will be available online afterward and shared widely.
I hope that many of our faculty will attend and participate in these events; they will be interesting, informative, and challenging. But regardless of whether you attend these events or not, I also encourage you, if you are a US citizen, to exercise your democratic right to vote in November.
Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences
Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society
Professor of Philosophy, and, by courtesy, Political Science