A Florence for the 21st century
LIKE all first-year Stanford students, Peter Kurzner is obliged to study the arts. He has settled on a curriculum that includes courses in political science and "theatre in the marketplace", as well as voice lessons. “I considered going to Yale, which has traditionally been much better at performing arts," he says. "But Stanford is really making a push to raise its level."
It is indeed. California’s famous innovation factory, which counts Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, Reed Hastings of Netflix, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger of Instagram, and Peter Thiel of PayPal among its alumni, has discovered that arts are the future.
“Stanford is aware that it’s educating leaders,” explains Stephen Hinton, a professor of music and the director of the Stanford Arts Initiative. “And leadership isn’t just about having technical skills and economic savvy, but about having a broad range of skills.”
In other words, Stanford wants its future Brins and Pages to know not just how to code but also how to decode Mozart symphonies. From last September, all undergraduates have had to take a compulsory class in "Creative Expression". Among the 161 courses they can choose from are Laptop Orchestra and Shakespeare in Performance.
The Palo Alto-based university is trying to help answer one of the questions that haunts our "knowledge society": where will new ideas come from? Many successful start-ups are the result of their founders spotting gaps in their own lives. But what if their thinking stretched far beyond their daily horizon? “The labour market is a rat race, so you’re in a permanent state of distraction,” notes Wiley Hausam, the executive director of Stanford’s new Bing Concert Hall (pictured). “Art stops all of that and allows creative ideas to emerge almost on their own.”
So, in much the same manner that Immanuel Kant, an 18th-century philosopher, developed ideas on his daily walks through Königsberg in Prussia, Stanford students’ outings into the world of arts will—so the university’s leadership hope—help them become more creative citizens. Of course, not all undergraduates will jump at the opportunity to learn more about Giacomo Puccini or Jackson Pollock. But, argues Professor Hinton, in today’s society delving into unfamiliar areas is necessary: “The pace of technology is such that the field you go into may become obsolete, so it’s good to get used to stepping outside your comfort zone.”
Indeed, according to Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, a senior analyst at the OECD's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, “other universities are also realising that vocational training isn't enough”. According to an article by Vincent-Lancrin, Francesco Avvisati and Gwenaël Jacotin in the Tuning Journal for Higher Education, arts graduates are more likely than others to be involved in product innovation. Aalto University was launched in Finland in 2010 with the goal of creating a new science-and-arts community.
Stanford’s push also raises a question about the role of the arts in northern California as a whole. According to the Bay Area Economic Research Council, the 7.15m-resident San Francisco Bay area, with its GDP of $535 billion (£328 billion), is the world’s 19th-largest economy. Yet even though San Francisco has a respected opera house and world-class symphony orchestra, northern California’s arts scene is small compared with that of, say, London or New York. That’s something Mr Hausam wants to change. "Stanford has been the catalyst of the Silicon Valley revolution, and we want to have the same effect on the arts," he says. "The Bay Area has the human and material resources needed to become the Florence of the 21st century."
The first step, Mr Hausam says, is to turn Palo Alto into a city where artists live permanently. “In the next three-to-five years you’ll see the effect,” he promises. “Arts will fundamentally change our students, and it will change students who come to Stanford. In five years I hope we’ll have a student body that embraces the arts and artistic living.”
Stanford creating a new Florence? Students and professors at Yale, which boasts highly respected drama and music schools, might scoff at the thought. But the university behind Google and Netflix has the muscle to make an impact in arts, too. Imagine the potential if future Brins and Pages were encouraged to nurture artistic interests. We’ll check back in five years.