Widgets Magazine


Op-ed: No humanities students won a Knight-Hennessy scholarship, here’s why

About one month ago, the Stanford Review published an article by Eddie Mattout entitled “No Humanities Students Won a Knight-Hennessy Scholarship. Why?” In the article, Mattout argues that the scholarship, which funds graduate students from around the world in an effort to create a “community of future global leaders,” should include humanities students.

The “Why?” in this title is not a rhetorical one. It articulates a demand, a “How could they?” rather than a “What caused this?” This title, perhaps unwittingly, belies an underlying problem with Mattout’s approach to evaluating the humanities: it seeks action rather than understanding. More broadly, his argument requires of the humanities that they be useful according to established definitions of usefulness, not recognizing that questioning those definitions is one of the fundamental aims of the humanities.

Mattout concludes his article with the demand that humanities students be included in the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship Program. We disagree; we find the absence of the humanities from this program unsurprising and completely natural, since the two aim at fundamentally different goals.

KHSP presents itself as a program which develops future leaders who will have a global impact. It prizes community, talent, leadership, power, and most of all — change.

Based on these values, it would be more surprising if the program offered a substantial number of scholarships to humanities students — after all, most English students hardly expect to be able to change the world through a poem or literary analysis in the same way or to the same degree that a doctor could change the world by discovering or inventing a vaccine.

This is where the humanities and the Knight-Hennessy Program — and the larger Stanford vein of impact-oriented, world-changing aspiration it represents — diverge.

The humanities prioritize questions over answers, and because of this, they cannot drive towards the same aim as the Knight-Hennessy Scholars. The program seeks scholars who want to solve the world’s problems — and this is an admirable goal. However, that goal is simply not the goal of the humanities, for to devote your life to questions means not to solve problems but to go out looking for more problems.

Both question- and answer-seeking are important. One cannot simply pose problems without ever seeking to resolve them. Meanwhile, those who seek to solve problems must know that they are solving the right problems. The Knight-Hennessy Scholars are supposed to solve problems, to “effect large-scale positive impact in the world.” To do so in a responsible manner, they must ask questions such as, “What do we mean when we say ‘positive?’”

Why not, then, enroll those people who “devote their entire study to these very questions,” as Mattout writes? Can the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program not accommodate both the humanistic problem-seekers and the action-oriented problem-solvers?

Here, we must return to the stated purpose of the program: “to address complex challenges through collaboration and innovation.” No mention is made of figuring out what the challenges are; the focus is entirely on the action of addressing them. In such an environment, questions are only a means to the end of finding answers.

The heart of the humanities lies in questioning in order to question. In this, they may not be so different from other liberal arts fields, like the pure sciences. However, unlike the sciences, which operate by building up a body of established knowledge, humanistic fields articulate new ways to look at what we call “knowledge.” And unlike the applied fields, which seek to find uses for knowledge, the humanities seeks to question what exactly we mean by “useful.”

Mattout is not wrong about the humanities offering tools for action, tools that could be useful to those who seek to address the world’s challenges. However, trying to put questions in service of action misses the point of the humanities. On a methodological level, humanistic inquiry simply cannot be meaningful if it is put in service of something else.

Insofar as the Knight-Hennessy Scholars Program focuses on action — the effecting of positive impact through the solving of problems — it has no place for the humanities. And this is as it should be.

—Jessica Luo ’19 and Ben Davidson ’21

  • 09

    This seems like an awfully reductive view of the humanities and what they have to offer.

  • JamilMalik

    I also disagree with the reduction of the humanities down to “It’s about finding more problems not solving existing ones”

    Is the work an English grad student does to process thousands of literary texts to evaluate big trends in literary history “looking for more problems” or is it solving the problem of how to glean insights from our history at a more efficient level?

    Is a linguistics department’s work on endangered language revival “looking for more problems” or is solving the problem of languages being endangered at an alarming pace due to globalization?

    Is a sociology professor’s research showing that language and wording which invokes stereotype threat causes decreased performance in certain demographics “looking for more problems” or is it solving the problem of how to reduce the effects of stereotypes in our education system.

    Also the idea that poets don’t change the world like doctors do is ridiculous. Most doctors never even do significant research, let alone invent a vaccine. In the same vein, most poets never write a society-changing poem, but some do.

  • Goatee Mascara

    What exactly is Stanford teaching in the humanities these days? That mommy has 18 genders and daddy identifies as a marginalized Northern Spotted Owl? That Rigoberta Menchu and Chinua Achebe are equal to Shakespeare and Voltaire? That the best air traffic controllers are the most diverse air traffic controllers? That Linda Sarsour is a national hero and Thomas Jefferson was a racist terrorist? That the substance-induced gibberish of rap music is really African-American vernacular performance art? That if you’re not a white male you’re by definition a victim? That if you question man-made climate change you’re a baby murderer? That not being offended is a right? A quarter million dollar BA degree for that?! Really?

    Why would KHSP give these pablum regurgitators a dime? What are they going to lead, exactly? A pussy hat march for the right of homeless illegal aliens to defecate on Starbucks countertops?

    When Stanford gave up on Western Culture in the 1980s it gave up on the humanities. Let’s just skip the middleman and allow Stanford to become the STEM vocational school it’s clearly destined to be.

  • Jimmy

    Are you triggered, pal?

  • Que Saisje

    Trenchant reply!

  • Ryan

    Thank you for the thought-provoking article. I think most of the comments in response to this op-ed are a little off-base. (The rant against political correctness is, to put it politely, significantly more than a little off-base). The authors weren’t arguing that the humanities and humanists absolutely cannot and do not try to solve problems, just that problem-solving isn’t the humanities’ primary goal. But even granting that solving problems is not the humanities’ primary goal, I think the main flaw of the article is that the authors do not present an argument for why the humanities is structurally (or otherwise) unequipped to actually solve problems, especially in a way that would render an individual humanist who attempts to solve a problem ineligible for the KHS.

    Besides this, a few notes of pedantry: Unless the doctor in question is also involved in a laboratory, it would most likely be a research biologist that produces a vaccine. Likewise, vaccines are not discovered (at least, not since the discovery of vaccination itself) but produced. Sociologists are not classified as part of the humanities, but linguists are.

  • Jessica Luo

    Thank you for your thoughts. I agree that just because problem-solving is not central to humanistic endeavors does not mean that any given humanist is unequipped to solve problems. I do think that humanities scholars would find studying within a specifically problem-solving-oriented mindset, such as that of the KHSP, limiting if not completely compromising for their research, such that the KHSP may not be the most appealing environment for many humanists.

    This is not to say that the KHSP itself would not benefit from including humanists. However, if the central concern of the KHSP is solving global problems, as it appears to be, the conditions produced by the program itself preclude the possibility of its benefiting from the central insights the humanities has to offer. In other words, the way in which the humanities could ultimately be most helpful in terms of long-term problem-solving (for example, by questioning established ways of thinking) cannot be effective within an action-focused environment. (To continue with the previous example, questioning established ways of thinking will be discouraged if the questioner cannot provide alternatives, since aporia is not conducive to action.)

    You are right to point out that this does not render humanists ineligible for the KHSP—I concede that the closing point draws an over-hasty conclusion. Individual humanists may well benefit from KHSP funding, and vice versa—it was not my intention to recommend that the KHSP necessarily exclude humanists from consideration, and regret having sacrificed clarity of argument for rhetorical effect. Nevertheless, I stand by the point that the humanities constitutionally cannot flourish within the KHSP, and that individual instances to the contrary are peripheral exceptions. Insofar as this is true, it is unwise to demand that the KHSP include humanists simply to render them prestige, as Mattout did, since participation in such a program would be a diminishment rather than an enhancement of the humanities.

  • Maya Ziv

    *cough* uh, I hate to break it to you, but uh, journalism, this thing you’re doing, that’s a humanities thing

  • Ben LeRoy

    You should really think before you generalize the life goals of a bunch of people you don’t know. You hate to see it.