My freshman experience has been vastly different than most as, I am proud to admit, I am one person of the roughly 5 percent of the freshman class who decided to participate in SLE, Stanford’s yearlong Structured Liberal Education program.
Having completed only one third of this 30-week-long journey, I wanted to do a brief “midterm” assessment of my SLExperience, inside and outside the classroom. Below are some high and low points of the quarter.
1) Becoming extraordinarily and irresistibly erudite
As one of about 90 SLEople, I clearly am already further along the path to intellectual, philosophical and spiritual enlightenment than the roughly 1,600 IHUMans in my grade. Having conquered numerous works by Plato and Aristotle, “The Odyssey,” “The Bhagavad Gita” and a few books in the Hebrew Bible, I obviously have a firm grasp on the meaning of life.
All jokes aside, and much as I wish it were otherwise, SLEople are not magically knowledgeable individuals who know everything ever about the world and possess all the information necessary to navigate life without any trouble. In fact, we have discussed the fact that being well-read does not translate to being a better person or living a more fulfilling life in a number of different settings. It matters more what we do with the information imparted from the texts.
From my position at the beginning of this structured liberal education, it seems that SLE equips its students to contemplate life’s “big” or “hard” questions more thoroughly and provides us with multiple historical and philosophical lenses through which we can view these questions. Asking and striving to answer these questions are what ultimately create a more meaningful experience, both at Stanford and beyond.
This quarter, most of our texts either sought to define justice, good and education, or discussed these topics in terms that provoked us to consider what they really meant. These examinations are the big questions that I have considered so far: what is justice and what does it mean to be just? What does a good education entail? To what degree do we have free will, or to what degree, if any, are we working toward a fixed destiny?
The biggest highlight of the quarter came when I figured out the singular answer to all of these questions! Having read a number of Socratic dialogues, the surest thing I can say I have learned so far is this: I know nothing. I am ignorant about what really “is,” about what the essence of anything and everything is.
But in all honesty, recognizing that much of what I think I know is wrong had the same effect on me that it did on Socrates’ interlocutors: it made me curious about the truth. This inquisitiveness made tackling our daunting reading list an ultimately rewarding task (despite the number of times I wanted to keel over while reading Plato’s “Republic”).
2) Special attention
Among the many offensive things said and done during Gaieties, I should have been most affronted by the number of jabs made at SLE. Yet I and my fellow SLEeks reveled in the parody. Our program, which represents only 5 percent of the class, gained enough attention to become a major part of the plotline. (From what little I understood, SLE, portrayed as a Harry Potter cult, eventually defeated Lucifer, saving Jesus Christ, a new freshman at Stanford, from going to Cal—Hell—and redeeming Stanford.) So, we were right up there with the rest of the school making fun of those weird kids who never go out, live so far from everything on campus, are always studying in their rooms and like it.
Outside of mockery, SLE also got some special attention in the form of a private discussion with Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard. Putnam was invited to Stanford as part of the University’s Presidential Lecture Series on Nov. 15. The next day, he spent an hour in the SLE Lounge in FloMo answering our questions about religion and faith in America, the topic of his earlier lecture and recently published book, before giving a larger talk at the Stanford Humanities Center. The additional publicity and opportunities SLE affords are something I have learned to appreciate on all levels.
I would enumerate some of the low points of the quarter, but unfortunately, there are none. (Hypothetically, even if there were, the highlights far outweigh the few discontented moments I’ve had.) For this quarter, it appears that SLE reigns superior.