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Humanities

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The Humanities Need an Ally: Could It Be Computer Code?

Why you should care

Because the battle for the humanities is about nothing less than the battle for human reasoning. And the ability to use phrases like “nothing less than.”

Apparently English degrees have become relevant again.

But don’t jump up and down, Mom. They’ve added a new language requirement I’ve yet to master: C++.

Stanford has launched the latest attempt to make the humanities 21st-century friendly. The great American university, nestled in the bosom of Silicon Valley, is updating the beleagured English major by tossing in some code . Students can now joint-major in English and computer science, meaning they don’t simply double up on classes, but they must actually integrate the two disciplines in a final project. (Music + CS is also a joint-major option.)

I may not be much for math but, on first read, this seems to equate to:

words + 011011 = a better-looking resumé.

It’s certain that the humanities need an ally, and the more high-powered, the better. Universities are under pressure to beef up the more “profitable” areas of study in their course offerings, as Congress doubles down on STEM as the cure for education’s woes, while slashing national arts funding. And what really stings? The growing number of foreign Uber drivers asking why I studied English when I grew up speaking it.

The most transferable skill of all is not code, but logic.

If the humanities need a hero, could technology — in the form of solutions like Stanford’s — wear the cape? There’s a handful of these kinds of programs on the rise: from Yale’s Computing in the Arts to the “digital humanities” movement in universities around the U.S. and abroad. Put simply, these programs are all about bringing the old stuff online and adding tricks like data mining and data visualization to disciplines like literature, history and arts.

No one would dispute that businesses and academic disciplines alike need to upgrade with the times. And you might argue that great thinkers aren’t that great if they can’t speak the societal language; and the societal language may increasingly be code.

But while we’re busy tech-ifying our bookshelves, are we in danger of forgetting the most important skills the humanities teach? The most transferable skill of all is not code, but logic. Which is precisely what studying texts and writing about them teaches. And exactly what everyone from McKinsey to the new SAT demands.

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Sanjena on graduation day at Yale University

Yet, as majors like Stanford’s become more ubiquitous, the humanities risk being diminished into a kind of trophy-wife major — what you study “to learn about the past” or because great books make you a well-rounded, cocktail-party-conversant individual. Not particularly substantive, mostly for show.

But if you’re smart, you might see a way around that.

I will never stop being grateful that I am the product of an expanding, rather than limiting, educational system.

At its best, the study of the humanities is an exercise in analytical skills, critical thinking and logic. What I learned as an English major was not how to love novels or recite poetry. It was how to build and defend an argument. How to marshal research toward an evidence-based conclusion. And my skills were largely drawn from the structure and language of books, something I’ve spoken from the age of 6.

I am reminded of the somewhat cheesy quote: “What if the cure for cancer is trapped inside the mind of someone who cannot afford an education?” What if the next great anyone is trapped in a world where no one is teaching them logic and how to think, or providing the launchpad that catapults them forward? Because the right major should provide a launchpad — a method or means for moving ahead and navigating the world. Do professional engineers really use their Physics 101? Perhaps in small doses, but what they learn over the course of their studies is a method. What the humanities teach, too, is a method.

If you dropped me in India or China or Singapore, or somewhere where mandatory recitation (never mind the Chaucer) is prioritized over argument, where learning history means memorizing facts over exploring causality, I would have turned out way, way stupider. (No claim is being made about where I netted out, but I’ll conjecture it’s a sight better.)

English doesn’t need to be code’s sidekick.

As a daughter of Indian-born parents who had to decide by the age of 12 whether they were “science people” (meaning smart) or “arts people” (meaning not-good-enough), I will never stop being grateful that I am the product of an expanding, rather than limiting, educational system. Because it gave me a chance to get smarter on my own terms.

The Sathians, parents and 2 children looking into camera

Sanjena, front, with her family

Even as we push for more nursery-school STEM classes, let’s not lose sight of what’s essential about the humanities. Sure, the students who graduate from Stanford’s new joint major may go on to design the next generation of sensory books , MOOC 3.0s, iPhone cases with the Great Gatsby picture superimposed on it or yet-to-be-imagined creations.

But will they master the art of textual argument? We can’t know yet. What I do know is that English doesn’t need to be code’s sidekick. What it needs are defenders of its plainest, least sexy instructional advantage: the fact that it teaches us to argue effectively, and that argument teaches us to think. And if you can learn to follow chains of logic by reading novels, then you can certainly teach yourself much of what you missed in coding class — or any course outside your major — while you were doodling words like dappled and distaff in the margins of your notebook.

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Meet The Author Sanjena Sathian

Sanjena Sathian has an obsessive relationship with books, politics and instant noodles. You can find her downing espresso and ranting, on a good day. She talks very rapidly and apologizes if that's unsettling.

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