And why not? Stanford’s campus is a glorious, unashamedly American mix of Bay Area Romanesque, California kludge and glorious nature. Its culture, so far as I’ve experienced it, is cheerful and laid back — a nice contrast to Princeton, the place where everyone knows that he or she has just been marginalized. Like Princeton, Stanford is chiefly famous for its scientists, but it does social sciences and humanities really well, too.
But Stanford does have a certain profile. It’s not just that the webpage tells you that the university is “in the heart of Silicon Valley,” or that the presence of science and technology on campus is architecturally overwhelming, or that the venture capital companies glitter along Sand Hill Road, very close to the campus, suggesting in the most vividly material way that investors and researchers live and work in a pretty tight symbiosis.
Everywhere on campus, you feel the dominance of science and technology, from the magnificent labs that seem to run 24 hours per day to the conversations about problem sets and engineering projects that you overhear if you eat your sandwich outside (as you can, through most of the year). And that’s the Stanford that Yale and Princeton and Harvard look at with admiration. This situation isn’t always comfortable for humanists in Palo Alto. A friend and former student with whom I wrote a book double-majored in molecular biology and classics — in order to refute accusations of “fuzziness” (not a compliment in the Stanford dialect).
In most ways, though, the results have been strikingly positive. Humanities at Stanford nurtures both great scholars pounding keyboards in their offices and research groups in which undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and technical experts work together. Many of Stanford’s humanities faculty — to say nothing of their students — have developed comfort with and expertise in new information technologies and wield them in original ways, to shed light on everything from the ways in which societies have divided and used space to the movement of words and ideas. Collaboration, they find, has many virtues: It gets students involved in discovery, enables scholars to work on projects that they couldn’t carry off on their own and, when it’s properly organized, makes the whole enterprise of scholarship more humane and less melancholy.
Princeton has long had humanists who grasped the potential of teamwork, information science and the internet. Robert Hollander, our great teacher and scholar of Dante, was a digital pioneer when stick-in-the-muds like me urged him to get a horse. My colleague John Haldon and his collaborators are steadily teaching us to see the history of warfare and politics in the Middle Ages in radically new ways. But the atmosphere is different. On the whole, we sit in our offices and type. And I’m pretty sure we would profit by coming out, letting our eyes adjust to the sun and trying things the Stanford way.
I’m all for Princeford, then — but with two provisos. The first is that Princeton should emulate Stanford in encouraging and rewarding entrepreneurial flair and innovation in the humanities, as well as in other fields. Most of the lucre at Stanford naturally goes to the fields pursued in the big glass labs. But Stanford also showers modest amounts of gold on humanists — and, by doing so, helps them bring in their share of outside largesse. Not surprisingly, this keeps the humanists apple-cheeked, cheerful and astonishingly productive.
The second is that all involved should bear in mind that the humanities have a distinctive relation to tradition — one very different from that of the sciences and social sciences. Humanists — professors and students alike — go lots of places. But they start by mastering languages and using them to interpret documents, works of art and music, poems, plays and novels. That’s old-fashioned, Slow Food work, accessed by old-fashioned ways of learning. Princeton has always valued these old-fashioned crafts, and it’s by combining them with new technologies that we will get the richest results. If Princeton really wants to be Princeford — and not just a smaller, less attractive Stanford in New Jersey — we have to find ways to preserve and value the old-fashioned, one-on-one ways of doing things as well as the hip new ones. It’s a challenge. For humanists, it’s probably the challenge of the century.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at email@example.com.