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H&S E-Newsletter: Past Dean's Messages

The Dean's Messages are archived from the H&S e-newsletter. Sign up to receive the quarterly e-newsletter.

What Is a Liberal Arts Education For? 

July 2019

I believe that we can do a better job in clearly communicating to our students, ourselves, and the general public the justification for the liberal arts education we, at Stanford, aim to provide.

I’d like to jumpstart a discussion on this issue, which will be taken up by the Faculty Senate in the fall, when we will discuss the role of the major and the first-year undergraduate curriculum.

The existence of majors responds to the goal of providing students with domain-specific knowledge that allows them to develop expertise in an area, including in an area that may equip them for a number of careers. It is important to recognize, however, that for many (if not most) of our students the domain-specific knowledge gained in the major will either 1) connect to their career choice indirectly; 2) connect directly only to a first job that launches a highly varied career; or 3) require supplementation by lifelong learning within rapidly evolving expert fields. Thus, the main thing our students gain within their majors is first-hand experience developing depth expertise itself, which cultivates broad, transferable cognitive skills.

Graduation with a specific major and a set of domain-based skills is important, but in this short note I want to address our reasons for requiring students to take courses outside their major, and to take up part of their education with classes and experiences that are not justified by career preparation alone. (I do not mean to deny that there are some career-based reasons for a broad liberal education, but I do not think that is the main reason why we ask students to undertake such an education.)

I think there are at least five justifications for the kind of broad education that we provide to students by asking them to take classes outside their majors:

  1. Overcoming provincialism. This is probably one of the most important goals of a broad education: overcoming narrowness of thought, our platitudes, and the things we just take as givens, and exposing us to other traditions of thought and experience, ranging across time and space. (Are all societies hierarchical? How did the universe begin? How many genders are there?)
  2. Equipping our students to appreciate the variety of methods that are relevant to understanding our complex social and natural world. (What is selection bias? What makes for a good interpretation? How can we design experiments that answer a question?)
  3. A democratic justification centered on the importance of a citizenry that can tell the difference between demagoguery and reasoned, responsible arguments. Students need the critical skills to evaluate arguments that affect not only their lives, but also the lives of others. (Is rule by the people compatible with the protection of human rights?) 
  4. An ethical justification: exposing students to the “warring gods” of value to reflect on their own values, to better understand moral and social disagreement, and to understand the way values infuse inquiry, choice, and decision. 
  5. Developing our enjoyment of art, literature, and the world around us, cultivating our sensibilities and thus enriching our lives. The former president of Barnard Judith Shapiro once told a group of students that what they should want from college is that they come away thinking that the “inside of your head is an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” This may be the most non-utilitarian of the goals of a liberal arts college education, but it is not for that reason the most unimportant.

All of these aspects of education are woefully undersupplied by the market; an education for jobs cannot therefore substitute for a liberal education. An education for jobs alone cannot prepare students for responsible citizenship, for a life of wonder and curiosity, for an understanding of the lives of others. Or, as W. E. B. Du Bois put it so eloquently in his debate with Booker T. Washington on the kind of education the freed slaves of Atlanta most needed: “…The true college will ever have one goal – not to earn meat but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.”

I welcome your thoughts on this issue.

With best wishes,

Debra Satz
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


Connect the Dots 

April 2019

This is the first issue of the School of Humanities and Sciences e-newsletter focused on faculty research across the school. This e-newsletter also hopes to build more community within H&S, which inspired the name “Building 1 Community,” (along with the location of the Dean’s Office in the Main Quad.) 

As the new dean of the school, I’ve been given the opportunity to learn about the work that is being done by physicists who study how the universe formed and evolved; economists who probe how egalitarian communities can survive in a capitalist world; historians who ask how law and society interacted with each other in the late Middle Ages; and artists who construct allegories to portray the interactions between art and evolving life.

We are a large school, and unlike Stanford’s other six schools, which are organized around one domain (e.g., law, engineering, medicine) it might seem that there is little to hold us together except for our very high standards.

Yet I am struck by the common thread that connects our 23 departments and 23 interdisciplinary programs: all of our faculty are producing fundamental knowledge, adding to humanity’s wealth of insights about ourselves, the natural world, and our place within it.

Some of this knowledge is, to be sure, practically focused; some of it seeks to awaken in us a willingness to imagine experiences from perspectives other than our own; and some of it is able to make connections among seemingly disparate phenomena. But all of it, I believe, adds to our fundamental knowledge and self-knowledge, whether that is knowledge about glycans on cell surfaces or the limits of musical form.

I have two goals for this e-newsletter: The first goal is informational. Because the school is large and complex, many faculty and staff are unaware of the amazing work being done by their peers in other departments. While the Stanford Report sometimes calls out the work and accomplishments of our faculty, the scope of the Report is the entire university.

The Stanford Report is also aimed at an outside audience as much as an internal one.  By contrast, this e-newsletter (which will include some articles from the Stanford Report) aims at sharing our faculty’s research and work with other faculty and staff in the school. I also hope to share from time to time some information about the school’s priorities; the structure of the school’s administration and decision-making; and information on new initiatives.

The second goal is community building. Many of our faculty spend the majority of their careers here but have little knowledge of the amazing work being done one building away from them. They are also sometimes unaware of work that is relevant to their own interests. Our decentralized structure doesn’t provide enough opportunities for the kind of “random collisions” that, at least in my own career, have generated not only new research projects but also lifelong friendships. 

With best wishes,

Debra Satz
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