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Thinking Matters the next step in ‘cyclical’ humanities requirements

As of this fall, the yearlong Introduction to the Humanities sequence will no longer be a requirement for freshmen. Instead, the Class of 2016 will choose from over 35 different quarter-long Thinking Matters courses.

Thinking Matters is slated to replace IHum as the new freshman humanities requirement. (LORENA RINCON-CRUZ/The Stanford Daily)

A wide variety of classes will be offered, everything from The Science of “MythBusters,” which investigates the popular TV show, to How Do You Build a Nation? Inclusion and Exclusion in the Making of Modern Iran, a look into the nation’s rich culture and history. According to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam Jr., the classes are not necessarily humanities courses, but they will teach humanities through “aesthetic inquiry, moral and ethical reasoning and creative expression” as a part of new breadth requirements voted on by the Faculty Senate.

“Thinking Matters courses ask students to ponder questions and issues that are vital to human existence, past and present,” Elam wrote in an email to The Daily. “They look at these questions from an intellectual perspective that illustrates the ways in which ‘thinking matters.’”

Every class, whether it’s Rules of War or The Water Course, will be based around asking questions and finding different ways to answer them.

Ellen Woods, the director of Thinking Matters, explains that the courses are meant to provide a transition to college-level learning. Thinking Matters is intended to help students develop analytical and inquiry skills while learning about a topic that interests them.

“Students are now asked to exercise more independently responsible choices in their education and are expected to build a solid liberal education that works for them,” Woods said.

Aside from allowing students to explore their interests, Thinking Matters is appealing to students because of its quarter-long length. The requirements for some majors are so large that it is difficult for students to have time for general education courses. According to history professor Jack Rakove, the faculty looked for a place to cut general education requirements and decided on IHUM  because it wasn’t popular among many students.

“Stanford is a great place to be humanist, but what makes Stanford Stanford is really its excellence in sciences, engineering, social sciences, stuff like that,” Rakove said.

With computer science as Stanford’s new most popular major, followed by biology and engineering, the yearlong humanities requirement was a lightning rod for campus criticism.

Elam, though, is quick to emphasize that the change in requirements is not entirely due to the so-called divide between “techies” and “fuzzies” at Stanford.

“All students come to Stanford having taken courses across this supposed divide,” Elam said. “We hope they will continue to do this at Stanford. In fact, we hope that techie students can discover their inner fuzziness and vice versa.”

Though Elam feels IHUM was a valuable course, he explains that it was meant to fade out eventually. Its predecessor, Cultures, Ideas and Values, was in place for about a decade, as was the Western Culture requirement before that.

“IHUM’s course of utility had simply come to an end,” Elam said. “Introductory courses tend to be cyclical at Stanford.”

In fact, complaints about Stanford’s humanities requirements have been around since the 1980s. A 1988 New York Times article notes that ‘‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” was a popular slogan at Stanford, where students were eager to see their freshman humanities requirement changed. Fast-forward eight years and negative columns were being written about the updated Cultures, Ideas, and Values requirement. In 1997, the Faculty Senate enthusiastically decided to require IHUM instead.

Now, even IHUM has run its course, and, according to Woods, Thinking Matters better achieves the University’s current goals.

“Each revision in the freshman required curriculum, which began almost 100 years ago at Stanford with Education for Citizenship, represents the dynamic social conditions of the time,” she said. “The faculty’s commitment is to a particular educational philosophy and approach to knowledge and the learning needs of the freshmen at the beginning of their undergraduate education.”

  • AK

    “Engineering” isn’t a major.

  • Guest

    This has the potential to be a long-term offering, something that students will like and that will help to meet the goals of a Stanford education. But it won’t stick unless the classes are made small. Triple the offerings and you can have classes of ~15 students. From the standpoint of the SUES recommendations, this would hit two birds with one stone: having a required ‘intellectual’ course freshman year + having all students take an introsem-like course.

  • Guest17

    Mr. Elam, I like what you’re trying to do, but I do wish you and other administrators would not throw around the techie/fuzzie labels. Those labels do nothing to forward the goal of having all students receive a liberal education.

  • Mike

    The science of mythbusters? So they’re basically investigating an investigation?

  • partriot

    Stanford, Inc. is doing a disservice to its students and society by further minimizing the role of humanities in its curriculum. At this point for transparency perhaps Stanford should rename itself Stanford Tech, or adopt the Stanford, Inc moniker. There is a dire need to integrate ethics and values in a tech education at Stanford to help avoid the blunders of its close tech industry partners.

    Google map engineers stealing data from routers as they drove by homes and businesses and Apple setting up a 5 person office in Reno, NV to avoid paying taxes in CA are but two examples of the dark side of the tech industry. The violation of privacy in the Google blunder is obvious. The damage to public education and public health by the billions in taxes Apple has evaded is especially curious since public elementary, high school, college and university students are some of the most ardent Apple fans and are being harmed through the budget shortfalls. Though Apple paid no taxes to CA, they did make a $50,000,000 donation to Stanford in 2011 which Stanford readily accepted.

    Stanford is in an excellent position to explore these and many other tech vs. ethics/value issues extensively as part of tech training. Stanford faculty and students have been criticized for focussing too much attention on “pump and dump” startups with little societal value, but with the hope by the developers of quick profit. It seems there is little time or interest at Stanford for the reflection a humanities focus as robust as the tech focus could provide. Further limiting the humanities area or relegating it to “cute” courses warrants reconsideration by the administration and careful consideration by students–if you have the time or interest.

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