Stanford University

History of the program

It all started way back in 1985.

That’s when faculty from philosophy, linguistics, computer science, and psychology decided that Stanford needed a new major—one devoted to the interdisciplinary study of mind, language, computation, and logic.

Why 1985 you ask?

By 1985 the so-called cognitive revolution, with its decisive move away from behaviorism, had long been gathering steam. Like many revolutions, it was reshaping the way many researchers in diverse fields went about their daily work. And inevitably, it also began to influence the way they thought about educating their students.  

1985 was also the year in which Howard Gardner crystalized not just the history of the cognitive revolution, but many of its principles and achievements, in his landmark book The Mind’s New Science. And just a few years earlier in 1979, Douglas Hofstadter’s book  Gödel, Escher, Bach, was awakening a hunger in many young and ambitious students for the kind of education that the Symbolic Systems Program was designed to provide.

While the obvious choice for the new program name was Cognitive Science, we selected Symbolic Systems instead...which is another story in and of itself

What’s changed since then?

For one thing, we’ve grown tremendously.  The first cohort of Symbolic Systems majors could be called, the few, the proud and the bold. They were pioneers bravely exploring a new approach to the study of logic, language, thought, and computation. Today, we are one of the largest majors at Stanford, with a truly distinguished group of alumni.  Many of them are still pioneers, leading the way in a truly diverse array of fields, creating transformative technological innovations as welling as groundbreaking theoretical work. 

Our core requirements have changed a bit over the years, mostly to keep up with ever changing times.  We have also reshaped our concentrations from time to time. No doubt more changes are still to come in the years ahead.  But one thing will never change: our commitment to training students to approach hard problems from multiple disciplinary perspectives—rigorously, systematically, and simultaneously.