Promoting and encouraging public service has been part of Stanford’s mission since its founding. The Founding Statement notes that a core goal of the University is “to promote the public welfare,” and an amendment written by Jane Stanford declares that students are given an education “in the hope and trust that they will become thereby of greater service to the public.”
This emphasis on service exists today, and it is evident in recent changes brought about by students and administrators alike. The ASSU Executive hosted a Service Summit in 2009, for example, and the University recently remade Branner into the Public Service theme dorm.
The Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), a broad examination that started last year and is still in progress, presents an opportunity to continue the promotion of public service on campus. The Editorial Board urges the SUES committee to consider a General Education Requirement (GER) in public service, which would both affirm Stanford’s commitment to service and have a positive impact on the undergraduate experience.
This new GER should be included within the Education for Citizenship component of the requirements. Currently, students must take courses in two of the four subject areas; Public Service could be added as a fifth area without disrupting the rest of the program. Successful service-based courses, such as the Community Writing Project courses within the Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR), could serve as excellent models for additional Public Service offerings.
But a Service GER should reflect the broad diversity of public service, and therefore should not be limited to academic courses alone. The Editorial Board supports an alternative method of receiving credit, in which students could submit a summary of service work completed either as a summer internship or simply an extracurricular activity. This flexibility would not only facilitate the transition to the new requirement but would also increase its appeal to students.
Some may claim that GERs are already burdensome, and that by adding a Public Service requirement Stanford would be reaching beyond the academic sphere to influence our actions outside of the classroom. This is not a convincing argument, however, for the following reasons.
First, it is important to remember that we all choose to attend Stanford and pay tuition in order to participate in — and benefit from — Stanford’s conception of a world-class liberal education. We may not agree with every component of the undergraduate program, but by choosing to spend four years here we place a great deal of trust in Stanford’s ability to educate us — and to change and refine educational requirements as it sees fit.
Second, exposure to new ideas and new experiences is a fundamental aspect of a college education. A Public Service GER fits in perfectly; it is not a case of overreaching, but rather an opportunity to stretch ourselves and try something different. And the requirement, as outlined above, would still be optional — students could choose different ECs instead.
Third, it is unfair to paint public service as completely separate from the world of academics. It is in fact closely connected, and a Service GER would provide unique real-world experience that would be beneficial for many students. A political science student, for example, could complete a government internship and gain a type of knowledge and insight into the policymaking process that a classroom education simply cannot simulate.
Beyond these benefits, a Public Service GER would count toward the 180 units required for graduation. It could, therefore, make the difference for some students who would otherwise come up a few units short and spare them another expensive quarter of tuition to receive their degree.
Finally, by tying the Service GER into the Haas Center and the Career Development Center (CDC), it could offer enormous benefit for students seeking jobs or internships with non-profits and government agencies. Many students struggle to find these types of positions; despite great efforts by the Haas Center and the CDC, such jobs just are not as plentiful and accessible as those in technology and consulting.
With a Service GER, the Haas Center and the CDC would have access to a list of organizations that have provided students with service activities that fulfill the requirement. By tracking and coordinating with good host organizations, these offices can build their respective databases and provide greater support to students seeking government or non-profit jobs.
The University is, understandably, slow and cautious in making changes to its undergraduate education program. But the SUES provides a clear opportunity to make substantial improvements, and the committee has indicated that it is considering a wide range of new proposals. The Editorial Board firmly believes that a Public Service GER would have a positive impact on undergraduate education and the Stanford experience as a whole, and we urge the SUES committee to consider this proposal.