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Humanities Education Serves as a Toolbox for Life

Who am I really? What can I know about myself and about the world? Without love, are we incomplete beings? Can the prescription for a fulfilling life be found in religion, reason, art, or nature? If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, you’re not alone: throughout the ages and across the globe people have considered the very same questions of human existence.

In “The Art of Living,” a course previously offered to Stanford freshmen, three Stanford humanities faculty challenged the students to consider these questions through the lens of great philosophical and literary works. For example, students read Plato’s Symposium, Shakespeare’sHamlet, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

In different ways, each of the authors offers a detailed exploration of life’s ‘big’ questions, thereby providing a foundation of sorts for those who follow. While Plato advocates a life of reason, Kierkegaard champions religious faith, and Nietzsche endorses artistry and illusion. Morrison celebrates community and Shakespeare seems to privilege the authentic action of an isolated individual.

“The Art of Living” was one of many Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM) courses that Stanford students could choose from. Every year, the incoming freshman class must select an IHUM course, as part of their core requirements. Because IHUM is mandatory and sometimes doesn’t align with a student’s primary academic interests, many freshmen begin the course dubiously wondering how it will be relevant to their lives.  Yet time and again, Lanier Anderson and Kenneth Taylor from the Department of Philosophy, and Joshua Landy from the Department of French and Italian, who in different combinations have been team-teaching “The Art of Living” over the past ten years, have seen students transform from skeptical observers to engaged participants in heated dialogue with fellow students and the faculty.


"The Narrative Construction of the Self"
Kenneth Taylor, Professor of Philosophy

Bridging the Divide Between the Intellectual and the Practical

Although “The Art of Living” invited students to focus their attention on five books, it also invited them to focus their attention on themselves, applying insights they have gleaned, questions they have encountered, and also practical skills they have acquired to the process of “becoming who they are.” Caroline Hodge, who took the course in the fall of 2010 as a freshman, said what she liked most about the “Art of Living” was that “it was essentially a class about how to live.” Hodge also felt that the course bridged the divide between the intellectual and the practical, and gave her “second, third, fourth perspectives on questions I had thought about for years but never before encountered in an academic setting.”

According to Hannah Miller Rich, Hodge’s classmate, the critical thinking skills fostered by the class directly help students to think about how they want to live, something that is especially important, added Rich, as students begin their university studies. “For me,” Rich said, “it was very reassuring to know that this discussion was taking place at Stanford, and it made me feel more comfortable in the academic community.”

Professor Taylor addressed the “how to live” question in a lecture on the narrative construction of self. “Our lives,” he said “are not just given to us as something already fixed and determined. Rather, our lives are given to us as a problem. Like the main character in Song of Solomon, each of us has to decide, somehow or other, what to value, what to be, what to strive to become.”

Authority figures, from parents to institutions regularly offer suggestions about how to live the best possible life, said Taylor. Ultimately, however, every individual is responsible for formulating his or her own answers. “Our course is about what considerations should go into choosing one's life,” he noted, before emphatically adding, “You'd have to be nearly dead, or utterly cynical, to think that such questions are not worth asking and reflecting upon.”

Dissent and Debate at Roundtable Discussions

In weekly roundtable discussions, the students and faculty delved into the philosophical themes of the current work they are reading. The conversation typically turned into a lively debate as the three professors responded to questions posed by the students. Several students remarked that they were surprised to learn that the professors rarely agreed and had widely divergent interpretations, all of which were supported by textual evidence.

Student Emily Petree learned how to defend her own views on literature in the debate-style discussions. “The fact that all three can disagree means that somewhere in there I can have my own ideas as well, and that they mean something,” Petree observed.

In one roundtable discussion, following a reading of Hamlet, a student asked the professors whether they felt it was admirable to lead an authentic life if doing so leads to selfishness. True to form, each of the three faculty members had markedly different responses. Professor Taylor said that without morality, the most authentic life imaginable could not be an admirable one. He pointed to Claudius, a fully authentic yet deeply unsavory character, as evidence that Shakespeare himself may well have recognized the limits of authenticity. Professor Landy suggested that the problem was not quite as stark as it appeared, since human beings tend to come equipped with some moral tendencies; to be fully authentic, then, is to give adequate expression to our moral leanings as well as to all the others. Professor Anderson worried that such a solution would not work in practice, since morality is an ongoing commitment, not something one can indulge off and on.

Petree’s classmate, Brittany Loree Rymer, described how the discussion sessions pushed her to seriously engage with the foundations and implications of her worldview.  “I left the course with more questions than I entered with.” That, Rymer said, “is the sign of a truly worthwhile course.”


"What One Should Learn from Artists"
Joashua Landy, Profressor of French and Italian

Humanities Education Serves as a Toolbox for Life

Many of the freshmen who take “The Art of Living” find that the coursework highlights the importance of studying the humanities. Professor Landy commented that it’s not unusual for students to find themselves considering continued coursework in the humanities, and even (in some cases) questioning their pre-professional paths.

Landy likes to remind students that employment recruiters seek undergraduates from a variety of majors – for example, management consulting firms highly regard philosophy majors. But, Landy stressed, even if a student chooses not to major in the humanities, there’s a great value in taking a few humanities oriented courses. “Students, we feel,” said Landy, “are well served keeping humanities classes in the mix, since these are the classes which really help us to think about who we are, what we care about, and how we plan to live our lives.”

Professor Taylor echoed Landy’s observation, and noted that some of the students start out thinking they will major in economics or physics but leave wanting to major in philosophy. Regardless of their future goals, however,Taylor asserted that it’s critical for undergraduate education not just to be viewed as preparation for a career. “The kind of questions our course addresses are just as relevant for future scientists or business people as they are for future artists, philosophers, or historians.”  Taylor added, “The questions our course addresses are questions that any reflective human being really must address if they are to live well and autonomously and authentically.”

Landy concluded by stating that the faculty is interested in preparing students for the long-term challenges of life.  “Our hope is that we will help students to think in new ways about the deep questions that beset every life, with a view both to enriching their life in general and to providing a toolbox for the solution of problems that may come up even in the workplace.”

Student Isabella Francisca Uria recalled, “Definitely the highlight of my ‘Art of Living’ experience was seeing ‘Hamlet on the Rock,’ a production of Hamlet set on Alcatraz Island. Though Professor Landy and I could not agree about who was a better character, Rosencrantz or Guildenstern (definitely Guildenstern), I found myself actively seeking out discussions with him about whether or not Kierkegaard captured the essence of faith or if Nietzsche believed more in truth or illusion.”

She added, “The course taught me many lessons in how to think, and if nothing else, then it taught me not to major in Economics. If you want to understand the inside joke, take the class – it's worth it.”

Videos of Full Lectures - Fall 2010

  1. Introduction - Anderson, Taylor and Landy
  2. Visions of Love - Taylor
  3. "It is not Hard at all to Challenge Socrates" - Landy
  4. A Life of Reason? Socrates v. Alcibiades - Anderson
  5. "Your Worm is the only Emperor for Diet" - Landy
  6. Hamlet: Knight of Resignation - Taylor
  7. "For Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should Weep for her?...The Play’s the Thing" - Anderson
  8. Roundtable Discussion: Shakespeare - Anderson, Landy, Taylor
  9. Abraham is the Knight of Faith: Faith versus Love, Morals, and Reason Itself - Anderson
  10. "Was it so Easy a Matter not to be Mistaken?" - Landy
  11. Abraham is the Knight of Faith: On the Roles of Reason and Faith - Taylor
  12. "What one Should Learn from Artists" - Landy
  13. Recurrence and Redemption or Why Science is just as Necessary as Art - Lanier Anderson
  14. Morality Strikes Back? - Taylor
  15. The Narrative Construction of the Self - Taylor
  16. The Flight of Self - Anderson
  17. "It’s not about you Living Longer. It’s About how you Live and Why" - Landy

A Note from the Faculty

It is hard to give oral footnotes, especially in the context of lectures to first-years.  But with this content online, the lecturers have an opportunity to include them, so that they may express their gratitude to those whose ideas they found especially helpful.


On Socrates's special kind of irony to Alcibiades, see Alexander Nehamas, The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault, Berkeley: U of California P, 1998, p. 61.

For Alcibiades's theory of love as counterproposal, see Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986, p. 184 (et passim).

For Plato's educational theory, see Alexander Nehamas, "Eristic, Antilogic, Sophistic, Dialectic: Plato's Demarcation of Philosophy from Sophistry," History of Philosophy Quarterly 7 (1990): 3-16.


For theories of ghosts, see John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951.


On life as literature, the eternal recurrence doctrine, the two-world model, and dogmatism, see Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche: Life as Literature, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985, esp. chapters 5 and 6.

On the eternal recurrence doctrine, see also R. Lanier Anderson, "Nietzsche on Redemption and Transfiguration," The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age, eds. Joshua Landy and Michael Saler, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009, pp. 225-58.

On literature as simulation, see Gregory Currie, "The Moral Psychology of Fiction," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73.2 (1995): 250-9.

For horror movies and strange reactions, see Kendall L. Walton, "Fearing Fictions," Journal of Philosophy 75 (1978): 5-27.


On the ambiguous ending, see Blake, Susan L. "Folklore and Community in Song of Solomon," MELUS 7.3 (1980): 77-82, pp. 79-80.

On literary style and our relationship to the world, see Frank B. Farrell, Why Does Literature Matter?, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004, esp. pp. 41, 159-60, 212.