By Louise Schultze, Marketing and Outreach Specialist
Editor’s Note: This Q&A is the second in a series of interviews conducted by Stanford OHS Head of School Dr. Tomohiro Hoshi. Dr. Dan Edelstein is the William H. Bonsall Professor of French, and Professor (by courtesy) of History and Political Science at Stanford University. He trained as a French scholar and holds a Ph.D. in French Literature. Dr. Edelstein has also been the Faculty Director of the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute since 2011.
Dr. Tomohiro Hoshi: Thanks so much for joining us today! Over the last couple of years, it has been a very unique time in the world. During the pandemic, how have things been at Stanford University from your perspective?
Dr. Dan Edelstein: Ah, the joys of Zoom teaching! I was fortunate in the courses I was teaching last year to have discussion seminars with, at most, 12 students in a class at a time. I found that Zoom was good enough for the purposes of these classes, and I will say, I ended up adopting some methods of Zoom teaching in a classroom again in the Fall quarter. I realized that conversations as a group were always much better when students had a chance to really talk amongst themselves first. I was teaching in a classroom right on the quad, so I would send them outside, and we had literal breakout rooms outdoors where they could take their masks off and talk about some of the questions. Then they would all come back and we’d have a great group conversation. So, even under the circumstances of teaching changing in the pandemic, I feel that we still learned something about good teaching and pedagogy.
Dr. Hoshi: That’s interesting! At Stanford OHS, we obviously have lots of teachers coming from traditional teaching environments, and the first thing that they need to work on when they get here is the transition to teaching online. It might not be like what they expected or are used to, but they adapt and discover new ways to reach and connect with our students in effective ways. In your work right now, what are some interesting projects you are working on?
Dr. Edelstein: I’m involved in a couple of different projects right now, and the biggest one was called Mapping the Republic of Letters. The Republic of Letters is an expression that was used starting in the 15th century, and it carried all the way through the 19th century. These scholars and writers throughout Europe primarily, all saw themselves as part of the same country of the mind, if you will, a sort of the fatherland of knowledge, and so they would often exchange letters to share discoveries, ask questions, or comment on current affairs. We have thousands and thousands of these letters stretching through moments in history. Now these letters have been digitized, so you can search them and look for particular themes like you would explore any online database.
What we wanted to explore was the extent to which this was really a Republic, versus just a bunch of fragmentary networks. So we took some of that data, and eventually we mapped it to look at the networks and patterns they formed geographically, and to find its “information highways.” What I took away is that, as a humanist when you’re working with what we would call “big data,” it was interesting to get these kinds of visualizations and new ideas of where to look. We weren’t answering questions once and for all, you can only conclude so much based on the visualization, but they prompt interesting questions. Like why, for instance, why are there so few of Voltaire’s letters to England when we know he was this great Anglophile? He doesn’t actually correspond that much with people in England, compared to Germany, obviously France, and even Italy. More broadly, this now informs how I approach digital humanities. All of us are digital humans without knowing it. If you do a search on Google, then you know you’re doing something that 20 years ago was impossible. Or if you just use any database for a word search, you’re still kind of doing digital humanities, and I think that it is just going to become kind of second nature. Computer processing has become stronger as library data sources become richer.
Dr. Hoshi: I’d like to shift now to the Summer Humanities Institute. It’s such an honor for us at Stanford OHS to support the program over the couple of years during the pandemic. Please tell us how you developed the program.
Dr. Edelstein: The original idea for this program came from Debra Satz in the Philosophy Department here at Stanford. The program has a couple of goals: one is to offer high school students a chance to experience what it’s like to study the Humanities at Stanford, but also more generally at a college level. We have found that for many students, it’s a completely different experience studying the Humanities at a high school level. In a high school history class, the experience for students is often, “Here’s a bunch of stuff you’ve got to learn, and I’m going to give you a quiz where you give it [the information] back to me.” Whereas we kind of turn it upside down here. At Stanford, classes are framed around a different approach: “Here’s the stuff we don’t know. Here’re all the questions that we still have about things that happened in the past. Let’s try to come up with compelling answers for why things turned out this way.” I think that many students report that they found their history classes really boring in high school because it was just rote memorization. They don’t really see the intellectual excitement. Learning history is more than just learning facts, and why does that matter in the age of Wikipedia? That’s not the point of studying history, so that you know on what day George Washington crossed the Delaware. It’s more about, WHY did he cross the Delaware, and what was his strategy? Under what circumstances might that not have worked, and let’s think of alternatives that could have happened! So I think that what we do at the Summer Humanities Institute is show students the excitement of studying history for example, but it could also be literature, philosophy, or religious studies.
A second goal is to help students realize that Stanford is a great place to study the humanities. I think that in people’s minds there’s a big equation between Stanford and Silicon Valley and technology, so why would you go to Stanford if you’re interested in English, or philosophy, or history? The truth is, we have wonderful departments, and all of those fields are fantastic and have world-renowned professors. If you are a high school student who’s really excited about the Humanities, we want to promote the best way to study them.
Dr. Hoshi: At Stanford OHS, a central component of our academic program is the Core Curriculum, which covers the humanities, political theory, and philosophy. Historically, our education program was best for gifted students, and we drew a lot of attention for our STEM areas like math and science. But, we also wanted to teach the importance of human subjects, and provide a forum for developing critical thinking skills.
Dr. Edelstein: Absolutely, I think that the kind of core skills that you acquire from studying the humanities, and the broader core knowledge and moral good that you learn is wildly underestimated. No matter what you end up doing – whether you’re a scientist or an engineer, and even if what you’re doing is not at all related to history, philosophy, or literature – it is so important to know how to express yourself clearly. To write in a clear and persuasive way, to analyze a problem in a logical way, to appreciate and know what it means to identify relevant data points or evidence out of a large body of text or documents… that is essential! Those are essential skills for just about every single profession.
My father is a scientist and used to joke that the difference between getting your scientific article published in Nature or a lesser journal is whether you can write up your results well. It’s about how well you interpret and write up your results that you can communicate a scientific discovery in your field. Can you present the right order and make a persuasive case that this is essential for science? Or if you go into technology and pitch your start-up idea to a board or a venture capitalist, you’ve got maybe five minutes to tell a really compelling story. That is entirely about your skills as a humanist and not about technology. You have to be able to present your ideas to show that your company or your software is making a big difference. I think we've really overestimated STEM to the detriment of all these incredibly useful and important skills that come from the study of the humanities.
Curiosity is a natural feature of humans, and, unfortunately, some school systems seem to be really good at dampening human curiosity and turning students into test-taking machines. But, if you are fortunate enough to be in a learning environment like Stanford Online High School that nurtures your curiosity, then it’s just incredibly gratifying to learn about ancient times, different ways of thought, different religions, and forms of literature. So, that’s a whole aspect which is rewarding and makes the humanities its own set of disciplines, and how humans produce meaning. Some of that narrative is through literature, some of it might be through painting, through music, and philosophy and religion. Studying all these different forms responds to your own human desire to find meaning in life. At the end of the day, students are really being cheated if they do not pursue the humanities, because an education that does not have fundamental human questions about how to live a good life is kind of soul-sucking and dead. It treats humans as machines who can produce goods and do certain services, and not as ends in themselves.
Dr. Hoshi: I’m really excited for us to have our students learn from you! So, you’re teaching high school students, undergraduates, graduate and post-doc students, and so forth. Particularly for high school students as they now are preparing to go to college, what kind of skills do you want them to have, and what kind of skills would be helpful to be successful in their lives?
Dr. Edelstein: What I see more and more is college frosh who have a really hard time reading, and a really hard time writing, and it kind of amazes me. No matter what subject you’re going to be studying, you’re going to have to do a lot of reading. I know a lot of our students artfully try to avoid taking classes that have essays at the end of them. But, you know, you can run but you can’t hide! Eventually you’re going to have to have to write as well. I’m in my mid-40’s and I still work at writing every day. I mean, I am still trying to become a better writer, and every time I write an article or a book, it’s an ongoing process. I think that many students don’t really know how to read at a college level, and because we don’t really talk about it that way, it’s kind of insulting to say to a student, “you don’t know how to read” when they’ve been reading since first grade, but the point is, how can you read in order to notice different things about a text? How can you read to really draw out an argument if it’s not in an essay or a textbook? You have to read to see what’s not there, what’s the author omitting. There are all these ways of doing sophisticated, college-level reading and writing over time.
I think a better analogy would be like playing an instrument. It’s not that, “I took Piano 101 so I’m good! I can play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” all day long and that’s it, I’m done.” Anyone who’s learned an instrument knows that you never stop making progress. If you stop playing, then you also lose it quite quickly. It is this ongoing learning experience, so I think that if high school students really embraced the mentality that reading and writing is something you just have to keep practicing over and over again, the benefits take a longer time to see.
Reading and writing really go hand-in-hand, the way you become a better writer is by reading more, and identifying as much as possible what the writer wants you to know. I always tell my students they should get a subscription to The New Yorker, even if they don’t care about a ton of the articles, because the one thing you can count on in The New Yorker is that they’re really good writers, and therefore they’re really good examples of what it means to be a good writer. You’ll pick up vocabulary, phrases, structure… reading good writing is essential for becoming a better writer.
Dr. Hoshi: Is there anything else that you think might be helpful for our students, families, and teachers to know?
Dr. Edelstein: There’s one thing I’d like to say that’s about the idea that many parents still have that whatever you major in is your job. It’s funny, given that very few people have the experience of doing the job that they majored in, but I think it comes from the fact that in some cases you study engineering and become an engineer, if you’re pre-med you become a doctor. A lot of people seem to think, if you’re a history major, what are you going to do? Be the local historian? Or if you’re a philosophy major, who needs a philosopher right now? I think a lot of parents need to be reassured in knowing that an undergraduate degree isn’t meant to lead you to a job, it’s meant to prepare you for multiple careers. Plus the other benefits we talked about to grow as an individual, as a human, and often it is these humanities-style majors that prepare you for anything. I’ve met with Stanford alumni who were English majors and who went on to have very successful careers in finance or at Facebook. Being a humanist doesn’t mean you’ll only be studying English literature the rest of your life. Overall, a liberal education in college will make you an incredibly skilled, thoughtful, independent thinker, and the rest you’ll figure out. Critical, independent thinkers who know how to learn can always keep up and be very successful because they know how to learn what they don’t yet know.