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The GAO Report: Restructuring Undergraduate Education

The Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) held a town hall last Wednesday to solicit student perspectives regarding the undergraduate curriculum. The last curriculum redesign occurred 15 years ago in 1994 through the Commission on Undergraduate Education. Charged with redefining the goals for a Stanford education in an era of globalization and with providing suggestions on how these objectives can be reflected in the undergraduate requirements, SUES has the potential to dramatically alter the future Stanford experience. Although the composition of SUES, particularly the selection of its two student members, should have been conducted more transparently, the taskforce appears to be making efforts to incorporate broader input in its decision-making process.

The driving concern of SUES should be looking at how to prepare Stanford undergraduates to navigate an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Stanford is uniquely positioned with its entrepreneurial culture, excellence across a breadth of disciplines and interdisciplinary approaches to produce the next generation of global leaders. The purpose of General Education Requirements (GERs) is to help undergraduates early in their careers attain the foundation necessary for advancing to further studies and research. More importantly, the rationale for undergraduate requirements is philosophical. They should aim to expose students to different modes of inquiry and help them engage in independent thinking and perceive the commonalities among human experiences. The challenge lies in striking the balance between providing some kind of guidance while offering students the freedom to explore resources at their disposal.

There are many core concerns that SUES should examine. For example, the need to continue expanding the availability and variety of small size Freshman and Sophomore seminars, expanding the number of tenure track faculty members serving as pre-major advisors, bridging the “divide” between humanities and sciences through an emphasis on interdisciplinary opportunities and translating intellectual pursuits into residential education. However, the priority should be a radical restructuring of Area One of GERs, namely the Introduction to Humanities (IHUM) and Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR). Although the experience among upperclassmen varies greatly, the current structure is mostly perceived as an unnecessary constraint on disciplinary exploration and an undue burden on freshmen already facing the difficulty of finding their intellectual niche.

Student advisory boards formed to facilitate communication between stakeholders and represent student opinion have frankly only initiated cosmetic changes. The structural and substantive nature of the program remains unaltered. In terms of IHUM, SUES should undertake comprehensive investigations of alternative humanities educational frameworks in our peer institutions. One example would be the “Great Books” program at the University of Chicago. Another is the “Core Curriculum” at Columbia University. If Stanford is going to have a humanities requirement, then it should be authentic and rigorous. The present Structured Liberal Education (SLE) that most closely mirrors the traditional humanities immersion is only accessible to a limited number of incoming freshmen. As the future political, economic and cultural elite, we need to be familiar with Western Civilization and the survey of classic works in Western literature and philosophy that have stood the test of time. Despite internationalization, the canon of “dead white men” is still relevant. It allows us to understand where we have come from, and if we disagree, exactly what we are reacting against.

The prospect for fundamental restructuring and return to the Western liberal arts tradition is rather bleak. While some of the critiques on higher education made by Allan Bloom in “The Closing of the American Mind” can still be applied to contemporary academia, social and political pressures in addition to institutional constraints restrict the capacity for reform. SUES will probably endorse the status quo, producing a report that outlines the advantages and disadvantages to the current system and provides a series of options with cost-benefit analysis attached. The final recommendation will most likely be to improve the existing IHUM format in some way, whether it is to increase the course offerings or the possibility of having multiple faculty members teaching the same class to cultivate more sense of shared experience in the humanities among the freshmen. Whatever the policy recommendation may be, SUES needs to think carefully about how to best explain the rationale for the existence of undergraduate requirements and convince students of their value.

The undergraduate writing program needs to become a more value-adding experience. Revision of the mechanics of composition and oral presentation on a generic basis is rather limiting. It would be more compelling if departments develop a more comprehensive writing program in addition to the current Writing in the Major (WIM) that cater specifically to the needs of the discipline.

Curriculum change is difficult. There are many conflicting priorities, voices and interests. The establishment of SUES is the first step toward ensuring the continued evolution and strength of undergraduate education at Stanford.

Shelley Gao ’11 writes weekly about campus issues. Contact Shelley: sxgao@stanford.edu.

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