Happy valley for techies, less so for others

Alan Ryan on fears that Silicon dreams and start-ups might leave humanities in the dark

October 2, 2014

Friends who have noticed that I am spending the year at Stanford enquire whether I find it “very foreign”. In obvious ways, I do: architecturally and climatically for a start, and I can’t quite get used to the local passion for sports, American football especially. But the change of scene in fact provokes – though rather more sharply than usual – a lot of very familiar questions.

Stanford University is enormously successful; there have been recent articles claiming that Stanford has now overtaken Harvard as the leading US university – largely on the strength of its success in raising money on the one hand and producing engineering and computer science graduates on the other.

Since money is essential to running a university, and engineers are essential to working out how humanity can survive on a planet whose carrying capacity we are in danger of exhausting, I don’t belittle such success. One might, and I do, wish there were more female engineers and that the sciences were more welcoming to women at all stages of their careers; but I worship the memory of Brunel and have a Victorian passion for great engineering projects, although bridges rather than skyscrapers.

To put the question crudely, what happens if you end up creating the world’s most successful technical college, but nobody reads a book?

However, there’s a certain unease in paradise, not – that I can see – on the part of students, but among faculty, alumni and spectators. The unease is thoroughly old-fashioned: if a great university is too good at producing entrepreneurially minded graduates who on one side of the country go off and create high-tech start-ups, and on the other side create the equivalent in financial engineering, what happens to the humanities? To put the question crudely, what happens if you end up creating the world’s most successful technical college, but nobody reads a book?

The absence of unease on the part of students is hardly surprising. A student who grows up in an environment where 15-year-old schoolboys plan their first start-ups, and who has the right skills and cast of mind for the entrepreneurial game, is no more likely to feel deprived if he never reads George Eliot than the star quarterback whose path from high school to a multimillion-dollar contract with the Denver Broncos runs through some undemanding courses at Florida State University.

Observers, on the other hand, have the usual fears. For one, they think it’s bad for anyone to grow up excessively focused on having a career and making money. Ought students not to spend time learning for learning’s sake? It has never been clear to me that you can force that on students; you can certainly bore them to death by making them learn something they don’t see the point of – and you may well put them off it for life. For another, many people think society at large would be better off with more of the population having some sense of how to think about the meaning of life rather than about the next technical fix.

That is no doubt true, but the contribution of the humanities to the creation of such skills is not straightforward. Heidegger was a serious philosopher and a Nazi; Sartre was a serious philosopher who defended Stalin’s terrorism. The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War reminds us how enthusiastically the historians of all sides defended the righteousness of their nations’ cause.

It’s easy to see why Stanford attracts particular attention, and I mean “see” in the most literal sense. The enormous campus – more than 10 square miles of it – is full of spiffy new buildings paid for by and dedicated to the success of Silicon Valley. But what worries observers is not particularly a Stanford phenomenon. Stanford was the target of a rather wounding piece in The New Yorker a couple of years back, when Ken Auleta characterised it as “Get Rich U”. And it is true that enrolments in the humanities have dropped by 40 per cent over the past decade – something that has its upside for humanities professors, who constitute 40 per cent of the faculty and look after 15 per cent of the students.

But the movement away from the humanities is general. It is no more pronounced in Stanford than in most of the US, and no more pronounced in the US than in the UK.

The question, of course, is what’s to be done? The problem is much worse in hard-up public colleges in the US than in well-off places such as Stanford and Princeton University. In the latter, you can absorb the inefficiency of having more faculty than you really need; in hard-up public institutions, you cut back on both your staff and your offerings, and you hire underpaid adjuncts in service roles. Then, those who do want an education in the humanities can’t get it. In that respect, Britain is more like the hard-up parts of the American system. Whether it is a crisis is another matter.

In terms of the survival of research in the humanities, it’s easy to see how it might be hived off into centres and institutes. Nor is it too miserable a prospect that traditional liberal arts colleges should do more of the traditional liberal arts teaching (even in the UK, it’s not hard to see how it could be done) while big research universities focus on what they are good at.

Harvard was created to avoid the danger of an illiterate clergy in newly settled New England, but many of the biggest and best US universities began as “land grant” colleges. Mr and Mrs Stanford wanted their college not to be an ivory tower but to provide a useful education. There are worse things than usefulness, even if we need the humanities to keep asking just what usefulness consists in.

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