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Is It Now 'Uncool' To Major In The Humanities?

Publication Date: 
February 10, 2011
Stanford University News
Cynthia Haven

In the following article by Stanford University News, Dean Larry Kramer urges prospective law students to resist the temptation to continuously keep all options open. Cynthia Haven reports:

Follow your bliss and take a few chances, say Stanford deans of business, law, medicine and education. Sometimes it looks like "you have been building your CVs since you were 4 years old," added law school's Larry Kramer.


As the world looks to science and technology for its future, is an art or literature major toxic? Is it poison, particularly, if you intend to go on to law school, business school, med school or even education? Or even if you plan to be employed at all?

In hard economic times, humanities must justify their worth. And four Stanford deans gathered Tuesday to defend the humanities in the face of declining interest and enrollment in those subjects.

Law school Dean Larry Kramer, business school Dean Garth Saloner, education Dean Deborah Stipek, and Charles Prober, senior associate dean for medical education, spoke to Stanford sophomores Tuesday at an event moderated by Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education.


Kramer said the decline was part of broader, shifting cultural tends. When he attended college, he said, it was "completely uncool" to major in something other than the humanities – for example, to major in science or engineering.

The shift started in the 1980s, he said, with an increased focus on economic development and personal wealth.

When Elam asked how the humanities had affected the deans' own educational experience, Kramer said he began taking law courses under duress, because "my mother was so on my back to do something," while he was trying to be a writer.

"I thought I was OK. I wasn't," he said.

One of his experimental law courses, taught by former U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, "essentially started with a debate about 'might makes right'" – winding from Socrates to Roe v. Wade, with Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes in between, bringing together the worlds of philosophy, education, business.

Kramer was sold. He became Levi's assistant.


Kramer said the law school favors applicants who are "the most interesting, most inquisitive, most ambitious," but that one skill from the humanities is imperative:

"Writing skills are absolutely critical," he said. "That's true for any profession."


Kramer said the law school applications were "humbling on paper" compared with his own cohort years ago. However, it often appears as if "you have been building your CVs since you were 4 years old" and that "the route to success is to collect as many gold stars as you can and keep your options open."

Kramer said it was a "horrible" recipe for life.

"At some point you do have to make choices," he said. "It's scary to me how many times the choice has been made by the choices not made."