In his guest essay on this blog last Thursday, Fred Beuttler suggested that there is “another cultural battle in which most of us are still in the middle of,” a battle of “not so much Culture Wars, but rather C. P. Snow’s two cultures, the relation of the humanities to the sciences, in the education of free citizens in a democracy.” He argued that the current and prevalent rationale for requiring students to take humanities courses – “critical thinking skills” – is an inadequate defense of the humanities and “puts us humanists at a distinct disadvantage in the curricular and departmental ‘wars’ taking place in our universities.” He goes on to suggest that it might be time, or past time, for the humanities disciplines to define themselves as conveying some common and necessary content, and to contend for the value of that content and for its important place in the curriculum.
I think Prof. Beuttler is right – “critical thinking skills” is poor ground on which to make a stand. I am trying to figure out a better stand to take. I suppose that’s the presentist concern undergirding my dissertation: the fight in higher education has gone from “what literature, what history, should we require students to study” to “why require the study of literature or history at all?” Of course, as Prof. Beuttler suggests, that latter question – why require these subjects at all? – is not a new one, though it does need a new answer.
In my research for the chapter I am writing now, I have come across various old answers to that question. And no answer was more jarring to me than the rationale provided by a group of Stanford engineering professors in 1925.
First, some quick background: from the year it opened its doors to its first crop of students in 1891, Stanford had always offered undergraduate degrees in engineering. But up until the 1920s, engineering was simply one department of study among other departments at the university. Also important: from its first year of instruction, up until 1919, Stanford had no university-wide general education requirements or distribution requirements for undergraduates, except for a freshman composition class for students who couldn’t test out of it. In 1919 and 1920, Stanford rolled out a very limited program of distribution requirements, including the three-quarter “Problems of Citizenship” course required of all students.
Well, in 1924, Stanford’s president, Ray Lyman Wilbur, appointed a committee to study the reorganization of the engineering disciplines as a separate school within the university. In outlining issues the committee should consider, Wilbur noted, “With the development of the work of the Lower Division, requiring of all students more in the way of general courses, there has been some difficulty in completing the A.B. degree [in engineering] as a professional course in four years.”* Therefore, he wanted the special committee to consider this question (among others): “Should all engineering students be required to take economics, geography or geology, biology, chemistry, physics, history, and English?”**
The study committee came back with this reply: “it is the unanimous judgment of this Committee that all engineering students should be required to take some minimum not only of the studies named above but also of certain others.” Those additional subjects included law, psychology, and government.***
Now, in light of Andrew Jewett’s argument in Science, Democracy, and the American University, this provision makes perfect sense. Here is a university in the middle of a curricular reorganization at a time when education policy makers and American intellectuals increasingly viewed the study of the social sciences – if not instead of then certainly in addition to the liberal arts — as essential to the education of citizens in a liberal democracy. So here is a recommendation that, yes, engineering students should be required to take the distribution requirements outlined above, and more besides, because that’s the kind of knowledge that is needed to equip students to handle the challenges posed by our increasingly complex democratic society.
But that’s not why this special committee recommended keeping the general distribution requirements — nor is that why they also recommended reserving almost one-fourth of engineering students’ programs of study for electives of their choosing.
Here’s the explanation for these recommendations, in the committee’s own words:
Recently a prominent topic of discussion in the industrial world has been the scarcity, among engineers, of men capable of managing, directing, leading. This has given rise, among engineering teachers, to a widespread discussion of the question, How to train the engineering student for leadership….
It is the belief of the undersigned that
- Indispensable qualities for leadership are initiative and the ability to enjoy responsibility.
- These qualities are inherited, not acquired
- If the engineering school is to turn out leaders, it must first catch them; and having caught them should have a care that the course of instruction calls forth rather than represses the exercise of initiative and judgment on the part of the student
- The customary curriculum tends to repel, by its very rigidity and narrowness, the boys of strong initiative and urge to leadership, and has deterred many born leaders inclined toward engineering from entering upon the engineering curriculum or caused them to abandon it; and
- The proposed four-year liberal curriculum, with its electives amounting to nearly one-fourth of the whole, will attract rather than repel the born leader, permit the development of his innate capacity to lead, and thus enable the School of Engineering to send out its full quota of engineers who can answer the all-pervading call for leadership.****
Here’s my quick-and-dirty summary of the committee’s explanation: Leaders are born, not made. Stanford wants to attract students who are born to lead. Rigid and narrow curricular requirements are unattractive to born leaders. But a curriculum that makes provision for the liberal arts, that requires study in the social sciences, and that still leaves room for electives will attract the kind of students that will help Stanford raise the profile and prestige of its engineering program.
There is a lot to say about this text, and I’d be interested in your comments on it. For now, I will simply point out the obvious: this was an unabashedly classist (and/or eugenicist) argument for higher education as a social sorting mechanism – but a sorting mechanism that worked both ways. Remember, at this moment in its history, Stanford’s place in the prestige economy of higher education was aspirational at best. “Stanford generally lacked prestige and influence in the early twentieth century,” Rebecca Lowen argues in Creating the Cold War University. “In fact, Stanford did not emerge as a prestigious academic institution until the 1960s, when it appeared on lists of the ‘top ten’ universities in America as well as on lists of the handful of universities receiving the most support from the federal government” (7). So, the argument went in 1925, retaining non-engineering subjects as a graduation requirement for engineering students while also allowing engineering students a significant number of elective hours would attract just the right sort who could raise the status of the school.
And that’s what Stanford did. The University founded its school of engineering in 1925, and the engineering majors still
had to take got to take English, and history, and Problems of Citizenship, and (later) Western Civ, and foreign languages.
But these breadth requirements that had started out as an attractive feature became a bothersome bug for the engineering disciplines. One of the leitmotifs running through the history of Stanford’s curriculum in the 20th century — and thus through my chapter — is the ever-present concern of the engineering professors over how various proposed changes to undergraduate requirements would affect the engineering programs. Thus, a parallel motif runs through the history I am sketching out in this chapter: the struggle of the humanities professors to maintain their foothold in the curriculum as institutional support seemed to shift away from the disciplines that (had formerly?) signaled social status to the disciplines that commanded increasing prestige — prestige, and money. And the logic that says “money = value” — that didn’t come from the engineering professors, at Stanford or anywhere else.
I’m not sure what any of this — my chapter, my dissertation, or even this blog post — does to help answer the question, “Why should a college education include the study of literature or history or art or music or foreign languages or diverse cultures?” Is there some way to reverse engineer these disciplines back into favor, or at least to ensure their protection from the depredations of the bean-counters? Can we do something to make sure that our poor beleaguered indebted students will continue to have a chance, even if only because they’re dutifully fulfilling a requirement, to read a poem or a novel or look at work of art and discuss it in a real classroom face-to-face with a professor and with their fellow students? The closest I can come to an answer right now, based mostly on my profound indignation at the notion that such pursuits should be the domain of only those who are “born” to them or can “afford” them as one affords a luxury, is simply: “Why the hell not?” And that’s no answer at all.
If anyone has a better answer, I’d be glad to hear it. I’m beyond tired of my own idealism — it has brought me to nothing but grief and graduate school — but I don’t mind indulging somebody else’s. Meanwhile, I have to finish this chapter.
*Annual Report of the President of Stanford University for the Thirty-Fourth Academic Year Ending August 31, 1925 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 1926), p. 22.