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Summer at Stanford: high school students wrestle with perennial questions

SummerHumanities - Safran_fix.jpg

The challenge of teaching "The Brothers Karamazov," said Jason Cieply, a course teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literatures, is "helping students appreciate the tensions, parallels, and repetitions while letting them expe
The challenge of teaching "The Brothers Karamazov," said Jason Cieply, a course teaching assistant and doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literatures, is "helping students appreciate the tensions, parallels, and repetitions while letting them experience it for themselves."
Photo Credit: 
Patricia Terrazas

Each summer, high school students fill the halls of the Stanford Humanities Center to grapple with questions that have dogged humankind for millennia: whether ideas create social change, or if the collective good trumps individual rights, for example.

Such fundamental questions animate the Summer Humanities Institute, which welcomed 135 students this summer – up from 49 its inaugural class in 2012 – with 30 hailing from other countries.

The institute immerses students in seminars where they wrestle with eternal questions and formulate original arguments, both in small classroom discussions and research papers. Christine Parker, associate director of Stanford Pre-Collegiate Studies, of which the institute is part, noted that its structure “allows us to really stretch the students in terms of the level and volume of work they do, and to challenge them at an exceptionally high level.”

Students repair to dorms and dining halls in the evening, where they study and socialize. In close consultation with professors and graduate research assistants, they spend the third week preparing a research paper they submit at the end of the program.

The Summer Humanities Institute offers two three-week sessions, one in June, the other in July, with seminars that seldom appear in high school curricula, said Dan Edelstein, a professor of French and Italian and a founding member of the institute. The goal, he said, is for students to “appreciate the university context where they’re encouraged to call ideas into question, and explore topics that they’re more personally interested in.”

Race reexamined
With Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs as their guide, students in the course Racial Identity in the American Imagination discussed a wide range of historical figures  –  from Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman, who was owned by President Thomas Jefferson and bore several of his children, to President Barack Obama  –  in an exploration of racial identity in American history.

Rising high school junior Sam Nash, from Manhattan, described Hobbs' course as “a way to empathize with more people and learn what it means to understand someone who doesn’t experience life in the same shoes.”  
In one lecture, Hobbs projected an image of immigrants being processed at Angel Island and asked her students, “What if we turn this picture on its head and focus on the immigrants rather than the officials? What if the history of immigration came from the immigrants themselves? How would it change what we know about history?”

Students bore this question in mind as they read a variety of critical essays, novels and other primary sources about race. Tackling a rigorous reading list, students also watched films and a live performance of the August Wilson play, Fences (1983), at the California Shakespeare Theater. They also participated in mock debates – for instance, whether or not Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings really fell in love. Hobbs’ students engaged in lively discussions about racial authenticity and "racial passing" – when a person of one racial group is also accepted as a member of a different one.

Hobbs’ 2014 book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, examines the phenomenon in the United States from the late 18th-century to the present.

The concept of racial passing intrigued student Irene Chun, a rising senior from Flushing, New York. She recalled how Hobbs turned her on to a story of a Korean woman who passed as Japanese. “This idea of passing is so often associated with black and white races, but it’s also applicable to many other races – I wish that more people knew about that,” she said.

Dostoevsky’s Russia
Students in Poetic Justice: Exploring Dostoevsky’s Russia, taught by Slavic languages and literatures Professor Gabriella Safran, read The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final and purportedly best philosophical novel. As with his other works, The Brothers Karamazov brims with tensions in 19th-century Russian society, each manifesting in characters with outsized personalities.

How Dostoevsky portrays metaphysical dilemmas intrigued students like Emily Mao, a rising high school senior from San Mateo. She found the course “a lot more challenging than school, which tends to be a lot more literal.”

Callie Carnaham, a rising junior from Washington, D.C., said that she enjoyed “living on campus and having a professor and teaching assistants who specialize in one specific area who talk so thoroughly about the book."

The focused academic and social experience also appealed to Marissa Schwartz, a senior from Decatur, Georgia, for whom “living with your classmates creates a sense of community.” 

Aware that Orthodox theology may be unfamiliar to those living outside eastern Christendom, Safran and course teaching assistants led students on a tour of Orthodox churches in San Francisco. This helped students to draw their own conclusions about Dostoevsky – a strategy that, in Safran’s words, “moves students toward college-level literature reading, where there isn’t a single, moral answer to what an author is saying about something.”

Marx, Nietzsche, Freud
Today’s world would be virtually unimaginable without Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, an intellectual trifecta whose ideas rattled the foundations of civilization well into the late 20th century. Students felt these shockwaves in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, taught by Adrian Daub, associate professor of German Studies.

Through carefully selected readings, Daub’s students learned to empathize intellectually with ideas that reshaped Western culture and global affairs. Rather than quibbling over their factual accuracy, students treated Marx’s dialectics or Nietzsche’s concept of “will” as interpretative tools that reveal much about Western thought, then and now.

Particularly striking to Daub was his students’ willingness to entertain ideas without immediately passing judgment on them. “They wanted to know this because it was out there, interested, and were very happy to apply to it things,” he said, “Never once did a student flat out reject these ideas; they all seemed absolutely willing to entertain, frankly, a sometimes ‘odd’ idea.”

Daub urged the students to reconstruct these conversations imaginatively. “If you see that your thinker is arguing with someone, try to think about what that person might have been saying,” he suggested, marveling that “there were a couple of points where students said, ‘well, he seems to be arguing with person X, Y, Z,’ and they got it 100 percent right.”

Curious and inspired, some alumni of the Stanford Humanities Institute summer program have returned to the Farm.

Holly Elizabeth Dayton, an SHI participant in 2012, its inaugural year, is now a Stanford senior majoring in history and theater and performance studies. Dayton aspired to study the humanities at Stanford after being blown away countless times by the intelligence of my peers, as well as their kindness and affability.” These peers, said Dayton, “convinced me that I had found an institution where I could celebrate studying what I loved surrounded by people who felt the same way.”