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Three Faculty Debate “The Currency and Value of a Stanford Education”

May 11, 2018
3 Professors and a bottle of wine

- Lanier Anderson, Elaine Treharne, and John Mitchell get together to reflect on what a Stanford undergraduate degree should ready its recipients to do

In the second in an occasional series of conversations sponsored by Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, three distinguished faculty explored a question that goes to the heart of the university’s mission: what does—and what should—the possession of a Stanford undergraduate degree amount to, not just in terms of the professional “currency” it offers, but in the deep and lifelong “value” it can bring to its recipients?

The conversation, held April 19th at 408 Panama Mall, was opened by former Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and Mary and Gordon Crary Family Professor John Mitchell. A computer scientist by training, Mitchell acknowledged that he works in a discipline often assumed to rank the “practical” uses of an undergraduate degree more highly than its intangible benefits. Yet, he suggested, “by exploring the tradition of “liberal education, I hope we can appreciate our differences and find thoughtful ways to work together in the future.”

Making the case for what she described as a “non-instrumentalist” conception of undergraduate education was medievalist Elaine Treharne, Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of Humanities and director of Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA).

Elaine Treharne VPTL 3 Professors and a bottle of wineTreharne began by quoting the conclusion of William Carlos Williams’ long 1962 poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, which includes the line “It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.” Poetry, she argued, offers a deeply enriching experience that resists measurement, despite strong pressure from administrators to value only learning outcomes that can in some way be counted.

In the face of this, we need “a vision for the humanities that is clearly articulated and makes no compromises to the kinds of instrumentality that we see in contemporary education,” said Treharne. It would reclaim, for example, currently frowned-on verbs like “appreciate” and “understand” as officially endorsed verbs to use in faculty descriptions of their course learning goals. Failing to aspire to teach students to “appreciate and understand the richness of the human experience and the human endeavor,” she said, is “shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Drawing on the medieval origin of what we now think of as the Liberal Arts, Treharne recalled that their purpose was to provide citizens with the intellectual capacity to be free thinkers. The mechanical arts, meanwhile, were held as complementary and important, but weren’t meant as substitute—a position rejected today by her “techie” students when they ask of their “fuzzie” peers studying subjects like philosophy or English literature: “Why did you come to Stanford to do that?”

To combat that kind of instrumentalism among students, Treharne appealed for a greater sense of communality among Stanford scholars of all stripes, more open-mindedness toward and respect for other people’s interests, and a greater equality of research and internship opportunities among humanists, scientists, and engineers. 

In his opening remarks, philosophy professor and Senior Associate Dean of Humanities and Arts Lanier Anderson, who holds the J. E. Wallace Sterling Professorship in the Humanities, looked to define “the true value of a liberal education.” The answer, he proposed, is “that it can transform the kind of person you are.” A university-trained mind has “a set of deeply rooted and open-ended mental capacities.” They include the ability to undertake high-level reading, analysis, criticism, and problem solving, and to successfully engage the creative imagination.

These capacities do have an instrumental value in preparing us for life and in helping us solve real world dilemmas, Anderson said. But just as importantly, they enable us to get more from the things we do for joy.

Anderson conceded that in order to gain these more abstract benefits, students need to focus on thinking about something concrete. Somewhat paradoxically, however, if that concrete thinking is oriented directly toward those benefits, it is unlikely to be effective.  To engage and train our capacities most deeply, we need to “study something for its own sake, just because it’s a hard problem and intrinsically interesting.”  That is why liberal education separates itself from the norms of professional training which students can go on to make the focus of a graduate education.


Noting that his own discipline computer science is often viewed as problematically vocational and instrumentally focused, John Mitchell pointed to recent informal polls among Stanford engineering faculty that show them strongly resisting that perception, and with it the notion that engineering is antithetical to a liberal education.

There’s another paradox here, he proposed, anchored in varying definitions of the terms “liberal education” and “liberal arts” across disciplines. Faculty “might all subscribe to the same verbal description of liberal education,” Mitchell said, “but think of their place in it differently.”

In response, Anderson offered several instances of entrenched instrumentalism on campus. Many faculty, for example, remain focused on preparing students for specific professional vocations, whether as engineers, scientists, or graduate researchers in the humanities. “The point of a major is to teach students what it’s like to think deeply about something, not to train them in everything they need to know to take the first steps to be a professional in the field,” Anderson said.

If that’s to change, added Treharne, the university will need to pay more than “lip service to the value of the humanities.” It should recalibrate the resources it offers different disciplines and ask faculty “to teach all of our students to be mutually respectful.” Faculty themselves need to be more respectful of each other, she said, and the entire campus should be asking how its culture of endless productivity stymies the serious reflection and deeper understanding that ought to be at the heart of a university’s mission. While many do share that vision of the university’s purpose, said Treharne, “putting it into practice all the way through the university is a different thing altogether.”

To some extent, student interest in vocationally “useful” degrees stems from genuine, and understandable, economic anxiety, Mitchell acknowledged. But is that perhaps a misguidedly short-term approach? 

Given the instability of the modern economy, Anderson agreed that it was. Abstract reasoning and creative capacities will be the most generally useful and least likely to become redundant, he maintained. Yet, too often, students are looking to develop more immediate skills, albeit for very understandable reasons. Persuading them otherwise, he said, requires helping them understand how any specific task in any specific class builds those long-term, transferable capabilities.

Treharne noted the challenge of helping students understand the deeper resonances of—or make connections between—their individual classes in a ten-week quarter. But making such connections for the students in classes, she said, “is only one way to really think about this.”

The first question from the floor probed the challenge of assessing concepts like “understanding,” with Treharne detailing how learning outcomes can to some extent be better written to make the concepts more easily assessable. Anderson wanted to reclaim “understanding” as a meaningful humanistic term for what students demonstrate when they lay out patterns of facts and ideas in an essay. “That hermeneutic process is a definite thing that we teach our students to do,” he said.
Anderson added that the verb “understand” (as sometimes used to describe a general learning outcome) does not always adequately capture the specific hermeneutic method and practice employed in the interpretive humanities. Ideally, he said, “understanding” could be reclaimed as a meaningful term for a learning goal if it were used to name quite specific skills that students stand to gain through distinctively humanistic inquiry. “We need to push harder to think about making explicit what we want our students to be able to do based on their learning gains in the course, and not just to rely on a list of topics covered.  That will get us to more illuminating learning goals, which will help promote the students’ learning by getting them to see more clearly what it is that they can (now) do,” Anderson explained.

Other questions explored the possibility that online courses might relieve the pressure on residential education to be vocational (they could), whether offering recent graduates more help in finding work would make them less vocationally-minded (a great idea), and how poetry can speak to students about the value of a Stanford education. For that, Treharne picked out another line in Williams’ Asphodel, “look at what passes for the new,” adding that students should be encouraged to apply historical knowledge and their own critical thinking when examining current popular trends.

Many current Stanford students see society on the cusp of a new age powered by artificial intelligence, she said. And yet, she added, “from the medieval period onwards, we’ve seen this idea in different guises.” That speaks to the value of having as strong a sense of where we’ve been as of where we’re going, she argued, and of “the enrichment that the humanities bring to people’s lives.”