Thursday, August 27, 2015

#239 / Where I'm From Is No Longer Where I'm At

I grew up in Palo Alto, and went to Stanford University. This is the 50th anniversary of my graduation, and a rather thick 50th Reunion Class Book just recently appeared in my mailbox. Every graduate had the opportunity to submit a page, and many did. Many did not, too. 

I am making my way through all these pages, and am getting a feeling for what life has been like for my fellow students from the Stanford Class of 1965. In a lot of ways, my own adventures have been rather typical. Sixty percent of my classmates, for instance, have at some point been employed as a teacher. Not so many have run for political office, though; only seven percent have done that, and I suppose that not all of those people won.

At any rate, the class biographies are fascinating, but what has intrigued me most has been the introduction to the Class Book, titled "Fifty Years Later..."

The introduction does a comparison of Stanford then and now, and it turns out (and I actually already knew this), the Stanford University of today is a fundamentally different place from the place where I went to school. 

Some examples:

  • Stanford today has three times the building space, twice the number of graduate students, sixty-four times the operating expense, and one hundred and thirty times the endowment it had in 1965.
  • According to faculty member Sanford Dornbusch, who taught sociology at Stanford fifty years ago, and who still lives at Stanford, "an enormous number want to apply to Stanford University because they want to make a million before they're thirty."
  • "Walk onto the campus and you'll see so many new buildings you'll need a map to get around. Just west of Quad is the engineering quadrangle of sprawling palaces with names like Hewlett, Packard, Gates, Yang and Huang appended to them. The business school has its own spacious quadrangle, and the Medical School has erupted vast structures devoted to cancer research and the marriage of computers and human anatomy...You'll feel like you've stepped into the Emerald City."
  • The decline of the humanities is a source of concern. Says former President Donald Kennedy: "...If you're history faculty, you're going to be almost a tutorial instructor. There are art history seminars with only five students. Gone are many of the broad survey courses, and in their places are specialized offerings aimed at attracting computer science majors... The fading of the humanities has combined with the passing of the belief in a common cultural foundation...One student said, "I would say everybody in my dorm knows how to code. Everyone has a specialty."  

I majored in American History at Stanford, and received my bachelors degree with Honors in Social Thought and Institutions. I am still there, intellectually, but Stanford has moved on. The same kind of transformations have been working themselves out at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which just dumped (without any discernible reason I could see) the opportunity to host the annual Santa Cruz Shakespeare summer festival.

The humanities and history are in retreat. Money advances.

But "advance" is probably not the right word!

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  1. I graduated from Stanford in 1979 with a degree in History. If vast numbers of current students want to learn to code more than how to learn how to think then so be it. Missed opportunity for them. Humanities will not die at Stanford. And even if they did there are plenty of outstanding liberal arts colleges and universities in this country to choose from.

  2. My daughter graduated from SU in '04 and benefited from a brief revival in undergraduate education initiated by then president Gerhard Casper who was genuinely concerned about the liberal arts. But the student body had already changed significantly by then and Casper appears to have been gently eased out of office. Hennessy has gone gangbusters in the opposite direction. As I mentioned in my class book page, this is all traceable to Fred Terman.

  3. Thanks to both Eric and Skip. Nice to know that others share my reservations!


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