"Life is not confined to equations and laboratory experiments." So wrote Hallett Smith, chairman of Caltech's Division of the Humanities, in a 1966 letter addressed to Arnold Beckman, then president of the Institute's board of trustees. In the letter, Smith described his faculty's hopes for a new building that would be constructed to house not only the humanists, but also the growing ranks of social scientists on campus. He wrote about the need for an appropriate setting for "courses focusing on the enormously complex problems of being a man—a creature who feels and dreams, loves and hates, hopes and despairs."
It would have been difficult for Smith to have anticipated then how much the faculty members in the humanities and social sciences at Caltech today would work with and rely on equations and experiments, but the sentiment behind his words holds true. Today's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) is intensely focused on probing the mysteries of the human experience. And Caltech continues to place great importance on the breadth of its students' educations, requiring undergraduates to take almost a quarter of their required units in the humanities and social sciences.
When Smith wrote his letter, the division was just beginning a transformation. The first step in that transformation had been to include the social scientists, and especially to hire economists and political scientists. In fact, it was that same year, 1966, that "Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences" first appeared in Caltech's catalog. Prior to that, and dating back to 1926, when the Institute introduced divisions as an organizational structure, there had been only the Division of the Humanities.
That means this year marks the 50th anniversary of HSS as such. Throughout 2016, the division will be celebrating this anniversary with a lecture series, inviting distinguished HSS alumni and faculty members—both past and present—to speak about their work and the impact that their time at Caltech has had on their careers. All of the lectures will take place in Baxter Lecture Hall, in the building on campus that Smith and his faculty moved into in 1971—the Donald E. Baxter, MD, Hall of the Humanities and Social Sciences.
"The lecture series is a bit of a celebration, a bit of a look back, and also a time to consider where we, as a division, want to be going," says Jean-Laurent Rosenthal (PhD '88), HSS chair and the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics.
The first lecture will take place Thursday, January 28, at 5 p.m. Daniel Kevles, Yale University's Stanley Woodward Professor of History, Emeritus, and Caltech's J. O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, will deliver a talk titled "Between the Archives and the Athenaeum: Caltech as Living History." Rosenthal notes that Kevles was "instrumental in creating history of science as it exists at Caltech today."
Over the last year, HSS has been compiling a history of research that the division has conducted since 1966. "We have accomplished a lot over the last half century," says Rosenthal. "And that work is quite different from what happened here before."
He explains that by the time Baxter Hall was dedicated in 1971, the division had a plan in place to continue its own transformation. All faculty would be expected not only to excel as instructors but also to conduct research. "Essentially they decided that all faculty at Caltech should be research scholars," says Rosenthal.
In the decades since, HSS has made its mark as a division both of researchers and of teachers. On the social sciences side, the division's scholars have pioneered experimental economics, helped develop the field of political economy, and are now leading the way in the fields of behavioral and social neuroscience. In the humanities, among other accomplishments, the Princeton University Press moved the Einstein Papers Project to Caltech in 2000, researchers have introduced new forms of historical narrative, and the division is a leader in the history and philosophy of science and technology.
Looking forward, Rosenthal emphasizes the importance of collaboration and interdisciplinary work for HSS's researchers. And he says there is a desire to have closer interaction between faculty members on campus and researchers at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. In that area, he says, a new program called the Caltech-Huntington Humanities Collaborations (CHHC) will build upon the success of the Materialities, Texts, and Images multidisciplinary program that started in 2013 to encourage research that revolves around material artifacts like those housed at The Huntington.
In addition to the growth of HSS research programs, Rosenthal notes that the division has a responsibility to Caltech students "to give them a breadth of experience." Besides offering dozens of courses in diverse fields, the division now offers seven undergraduate options—business, economics, and management; economics; English; history; history and philosophy of science; philosophy; and political science. It was not until 1965 that Caltech began offering bachelor of science degrees in the humanities—in history, English, or economics. HSS has PhD options in social science as well as behavioral and social neuroscience. Rosenthal adds, "Beyond the coursework, we also provide experience in areas of the human endeavor that students won't encounter in the physical and life sciences or in engineering."
"HSS has a variety of missions," he says. "We have made tremendous strides in the last 50 years. The goal is to keep becoming better."