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The GAO Report: Res Ed Indoctrination?

Given the announcement of the undergraduate housing draw last Friday, residential education must have passed through our minds once or twice in the recent weeks. The theme of “housing at Stanford” can be explored through various lenses. Most of the current discussion is based on the structural manifestation of residences. Undergraduate housing on the Farm is highly decentralized. A multitude of options is available post freshmen year. In addition to traditional dormitories, there are academic theme houses, ethnic theme houses, self-managed and cooperative residences, apartments and suites.

Championing a distinct lifestyle, culture and identity, each residence tends to attract a particular segment of the Stanford population. The nature of housing actively shapes the dynamics of student life. The draw system can be perceived as the causal link to fragmentation and a social scene that is divided into clear and insular cliques. To foster community building, some observers propose that Stanford should adopt the residential college system seen in our peer institutions. Indeed, living in a residential college with its own library, theatre and gym with around 400 other students for four years may improve broader campus cohesion.

An issue that warrants equal and perhaps more attention should be the underlying philosophy of residential education. Consistent with the current atmosphere of reform, for instance, manifested in the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (the first major general curriculum review in 15 years), the Office of Student Affairs should consider initiating an assessment of residential education. This seems wonderfully appropriate, as “the essential conviction” of residential education is that learning and living should be integrated. A comprehensive action plan consisting of satisfaction surveys, focus groups and town halls should be executed to reexamine residential education’s mission and how it is translated into practice.

Residential education tends to instill itself most fervently in freshman dorms with its robust, and, well, frankly overwhelming programming. Dormitory experiences vary significantly among students. Some form life long friendships while others find it plainly oppressive. At its best, residential education enhances “students’ preparation for a life of leadership, intellectual engagement, citizenship and service,” and at its worst, stifles independent thinking, induces conformity and indoctrinates. The challenge lies in managing the tension between creating a sense of community and allowing the freedom for individualism to flourish.

This is especially pertinent to freshman dorms where the target of policies is a group of 18-year-olds at one of the most emotionally vulnerable and socially insecure stages of their lives. Residential education staff must be more sensitive to the perhaps unintended psychological pressure and collective coercion to participate in programming. The staff must make sure to highlight the voluntary nature of engagement in activities like “crossing the line.” Discussion about issues like affirmative action, gay marriage, abortion and other controversial race, gender, or sexuality concerns can certainly take place. But, the framework must ensure that each student is a willing participant and comfortable with the dynamics of the discourse.

To be explicit, the danger in such programming is that on a campus dominated by leftist ideology, conservative students may be pressured to “adjust” their views. The process of questioning, unseating or affirming of pre-existing values is a normal part of attending college. Intellectual broadening through debate and introspection is expected of a liberal arts education. This may occur in and out of the classroom. The curriculum landscape has already shifted from Western Civilization to IHUM, diplomatic and military history to “social” history. It is only fair to speculate that academia’s liberal bias may intrude into living spaces, silently and insidiously enforcing “politically correct” answers to intrusive personal questions.

This discussion also raises the question of what should be the balance between curricular and experiential education. Driven by this “development of the rich complexity of the whole person” rhetoric, residential education sounds perfectly beneficent. From literature promising transformative personal experiences, it seems like learning in and out of the classroom, and really everywhere, is of equal value. While the seamless integration of the two spheres sounds charming, residence halls should not displace the primacy of classrooms.

Residential education must ensure that non-discrimination toward “incorrect” beliefs, embodied in one of its five primary functions termed “pluralistic community” actually manifests in practice. First, it needs to make sure programs do not have an ideological leaning. Second, it needs to incorporate more “political or ideological diversity” in its training for residential staff. Third, a culture that respects individual autonomy must be cultivated in the rigorously structured freshman dormitory life. All these reforms should be vigorously applied in freshman residences where the population is at the greatest risk of conformity. The most important principle residential education should follow is that college is about making our own decisions about what to do and what to think.

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

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