Stanford first-year curriculum avoids culture wars (opinion)

    In his March 21 opinion piece, Mark Bauerlein reflects on the history of Stanford’s first-year requirements to make an argument about the relation between general education and humanities majors. In the process, he refers to Stanford’s Thinking Matters courses but omits to mention that while Stanford continues to offer these courses in the present academic year, we are phasing them out as we transition to a new first-year program. As the faculty director of that program, I would like both to clarify our requirements and explain how our new program proposes different answers to the concerns that Bauerlein raises.

    Stanford’s first-year requirement since September 2021 is now Civic, Liberal and Global Education. Called COLLEGE for short, it replaces the Thinking Matters requirement, which had been in place since 2012. Both of these programs occupy the space once filled by the Western Culture (1980–1988) and Western Civilization (1935–1970) requirements, which Bauerlein also discusses.

    COLLEGE breaks with recent versions of the first-year requirement at Stanford. It was developed in the context of the university’s long-range vision plan and involved more than two years of intensive faculty discussion, informed by quantitative data and student focus groups. Ever since Western Civ ended, most gen ed programs at Stanford and elsewhere have given up on the idea of a single, shared curriculum (even Stanford’s Western Culture requirement allowed students to choose from different tracks). The result has been the kind of fragmented general education curriculum that Bauerlein laments.

    COLLEGE brings back the idea of a shared curriculum, though not to celebrate a canon or to nudge students to declare humanities majors. Rather, COLLEGE is designed to engage all our entering students, whose interests range widely across disciplines, by confronting them with existential questions: What is the true end of education? How do we sustain democracy? Can we solve problems on a global scale? COLLEGE also tackles underlying issues in campus social dynamics, which reflect national trends and are a growing concern at Stanford.

    Our new first-year program is structured as a three-course sequence, taught over three quarters. The fall course is entitled Why College? Your Education and the Good Life, and it offers students the opportunity to reflect on the meaning and purposes of higher education. Why College? encourages students to consider that there is more to college than preparing for your first job and suggests that the point of education is not only to provide you with a livelihood but to help you live well (to paraphrase W. E. B. Du Bois).

    In the winter, students take a course called Citizenship in the 21st Century, which introduces them to key ideas in the development of democratic citizenship. It also explores how actions at a community level can determine the health and strength of democratic institutions. Both courses are structured as 15-person seminars, so that first-year students can learn through discussion, engaged listening and civil disagreement.

    While it is not our primary objective, we do have anecdotal evidence that students who take these courses go on to take more humanities classes than they had planned. But this is where our approach differs from that promoted by Bauerlein. We don’t think that students have shied away from humanities classes because they are no longer required to read Homer or Ralph Ellison in the first year. What our research overwhelmingly revealed is that students are not taking humanities classes because they constantly receive messages from peers, parents and the media that humanities courses are not valuable. This is particularly true at competitive institutions, where students have been overly influenced by an unhealthy admissions process and led to believe that the purpose of a top-ranked college is to secure a high-paying job. Many confess that they would actually love to take a course that was not a STEM prerequisite, but they don’t give themselves permission to do so. As a required set of courses, COLLEGE gives students this permission to read and think deeply. Since the courses also challenge the prevailing mind-set around the purposes of education, they also reaffirm the value of the humanities for students and, hopefully, for society at large.

    The first step in our approach is to reset their understanding of college by presenting them with the philosophy behind the practice of liberal education. In the American system of higher education, as opposed to most European or Asian systems, we require students to take courses (e.g., breadth requirements) and acquire skills (e.g., foreign language and writing) outside their area of concentration. But we rarely explain to them why we do so. And these reasons in fact derive from a very appealing philosophy of education, which draws on theories of “the good life,” as developed notably by ancient Greek philosophers.

    But this is a second way in which we depart from Bauerlein’s preferred method. You don’t have to limit yourself to the Western tradition to discuss the emancipatory powers of education. Why College? readings range from Mary Shelley to Rabindranath Tagore, and from Seneca to Tsitsi Dangarembga. We teach our students to read closely, notably by having them keep commonplace books, but classroom conversations are ultimately about student experiences. The texts are pretexts to help the students recognize how they may still be constrained by their own background, educational experience and family. Faculty and postdoctoral teaching fellows facilitate discussions, rather than lecturing to the students, thus modeling the value of learning collectively by considering different perspectives. We read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, but we also have them practice genuine introspection, notably by requiring the students to write self-reflective essays at the start and close of the quarter.

    The Citizenship in the 21st Century course functions similarly—it features canonical texts on ideas of citizenship and ethical conduct by Plato, J. S. Mill and Frederick Douglass. But it connects these ideas to the current unraveling (both globally and nationally) of democratic institutions. Stanford’s geographic position in Silicon Valley lends another important context, as many of our students will go on to face huge challenges with how to combine social media and mass communication in productive rather than destructive ways. And here at Stanford, the Fundamental Standard of the university requires students to behave toward each other “as is demanded of good citizens.” Obviously, there are different conceptions of citizenship at play in these examples, but they affect every single student. How should they respond when a controversial speaker comes to campus or they see an offensive flier in a student residence? We don’t tell them what to do, but we do provide them with frameworks for thinking through these real-life issues.

    We begin the year, then, by ensuring that students have reflected on and questioned their individual reasons for being at college and that they understand their roles as members of overlapping communities. In this way, we hope to help students make thoughtful and informed choices about what commitments, courses, majors and even careers may come next. In the spring, the Global Perspectives quarter invites them to apply this mind-set to their diverse intellectual interests by choosing from among eight to 12 thematic courses that take a multidisciplinary approach to questions of global concern. These spring courses focus on topics ranging from sustainability to gender and sexuality.

    Supported by a Teagle Foundation/National Endowment for the Humanities Cornerstone: Learning for Living grant, COLLEGE is still in an early phase. Stanford’s Faculty Senate will review the program in 2025–26 to decide whether to make it a full three-quarter mandate. Until then, students will only be required to take a COLLEGE course in two out of three quarters (for pandemic-related reasons, that requirement was modified to one out of three this academic year). But early indications suggest that the program is popular among students and instructors alike and that the classes are achieving their ambitious goals.

    Future success depends precisely on avoiding the culture wars that Bauerlein seems eager to reignite. Our approach allows us to restore a precious piece of the first-year curriculum that has long been lost: a shared intellectual experience. When more than 1,000 first-year students are grappling with the same ideas, reading the same texts, writing the same assignments and engaging in the same activities at once, the walls of the classroom start to dissolve. Debates about what it means to disagree in good faith carry on in the residences themselves; discussions of the good life continue over dinner.

    Indeed, residential colleges and universities do not make enough of their greatest asset, which is precisely their residential nature. As at many other schools, all Stanford first-year students are required to live on campus, mostly in all-freshman residences. This is of course intentional, but are we succeeding in our intent? Cardinal Newman famously argued that students would learn more at a residential college without instructors than at a school with great instructors but no residences. When students “come together and freely mix with each other, they are sure to learn one from another, even if there be no one to teach them.” As our student bodies grow more diverse, however, Newman’s rosy assessment seems to be faltering. The inevitable learning from one another that Newman witnessed at Oxford or University College Dublin is hampered when students come from extremely varied backgrounds, have greater economic needs and face heightened societal expectations to enter a lucrative profession. That is why it is not sufficient today to teach students how to enter into conversation with the great minds of the past. We also need to explain the point of that conversation and to teach students how to engage in more meaningful conversations with one another. By placing purposeful discussion above textual comprehension in our classes, COLLEGE is an attempt to revive liberal education for the 21st century.

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