In the months leading up to arrival on campus, incoming freshmen are given a literal book full of options— living situations to choose between, a plethora clubs to delve into, academic programs to consider. The three books are doled out, students post ecstatically on the official class Facebook page and general excitement for the upcoming academic journey reaches a fever point.
But what is often overlooked in this time of dreaming about palm trees and Camp Stanford is the freshman academic requirements—either both THINK and PWR, or Education as Self-Fashioning (ESF) or an Integrated Learning Environments (the latter two are themed replacement options for the writing and analysis-based courses of THINK and PWR). While students of particular academic and extracurricular interests gravitate to the likes of humanities-oriented SLE or arts-focused ITALIC, the majority of students end up going through the tried and true combination of THINK and PWR.
And this is where that pre-freshman excitement gloss begins to dull— particularly for those freshmen entrenched in the world of THINK courses.
Designed to “help freshman students develop a sense for what constitutes a genuine question or problem and how to address it” through creative activities, interdisciplinary learning approaches, and first-year oriented critical thinking methods, THINK is seemingly everything a freshman would want. It is literally created with a new student in mind, developed over years to help— or coddle— freshmen through the tough academic and intellectual transition from high school thinking to college-level analysis. It is built on the idea of a liberal education, drawing upon interdisciplinary ways of thinking to give students access to modes of thought they may have never had access to before.
But though the goal of THINK courses is theoretically valid, the actual application of such a program is lacking, seemingly disconnected from its rather lofty (and, perhaps, unattainable) goals. Created as a replacement for IHUM, a mandatory three-quarter freshman commitment to a liberal education-style course, THINK was designed for freshman year flexibility, allowing students to willingly rather than grudgingly enroll in engaging topics. But by downsizing the liberal arts requirements even further and trying to appease student demands for more engaging material, the university has created a course model that is perhaps even less engaging, less community-based, and more requirement-like than the previous requirements. THINK has become a “liberal education” lite, an option chosen as a way to check off an undergraduate requirement box and one usually treated as such in academic effort.
In trying to shove the concept of a liberal education into a four-unit course, THINK sacrifices depth for breadth and chooses quantity of cross-subject connections over quantity of focused analyses. Courses like “Evil,” “Love,” and “100,000 Years of War,” grapple with massive concepts over broad swaths of time and wide ranges of people, yet simultaneously try to satisfy the liberal education ideal of gaining in-depth knowledge and range through multiple disciplines… and such a feat just simply is not possible given the structure and time frame of the THINK courses. Meeting twice weekly for only 50-minute-long lectures and 50-minute-long sections, THINK courses bite off more than they can chew and are often overly-processed, highly structured in a way that does all the interconnected thinking for the student. Set up in such a way that students learn to apply various types of disciplinary knowledge to understanding broad questions, there is merit to the way THINK breaks down meaningful concepts. But in doing so, the course inherently does all the integrative, interdisciplinary interpretation without allowing the student to make unique connections on their own.
The value of a liberal education, then, is for the students to individually find the interconnected meanings in the individual courses they take; it is a structure that inherently needs time, not condensed speed, to get the most benefit out of it. Entire colleges like Williams are founded on this concept, and for Stanford students to be forced into this quasi-liberal arts course does little to actually introduce students to what it means to think critically or inter-disciplinarily on their own.
There is much to be said about a more bottom-up approach to a liberal arts education, requiring students to think critically over a broad range of courses so that they can eventually understand the larger picture. From a course on computing methodology, to an introsem on Thomas Jefferson, to a philosophy lecture series, the multitude of specialized courses offered give students access to higher thinking by focusing on smaller picture concepts. Of course, they are naturally confined to the subject or major they were created for, but what is necessary for completing a CS p-set or a history research paper is the type of learning THINK claims to instill in its freshman students… it just takes more time and more depth. The top-down approach of THINK never fully reaches these more intricate and in-depth levels of learning because the course is structured to think large and broad rather than small and focused.
And with the WAYS requirements that have Stanford students taking courses from physics to French, the undergraduate career is already structured in such a way that they get a taste of the liberal arts education. If such requirements exist and reinforce the idea of a liberal arts education, then THINK really should have little necessity or purpose beyond offering another freshman class for students to bond over.
By the time many freshmen reach their spring quarter at Stanford, they are familiar with the intellectual challenges that come with taking a college-level course. Though fall-quarter freshmen may arguably find more use of THINK as newly-incoming and relatively unprepared students, THINK’s presence later on often feels redundant and superfluous to what is already being instilled in the smaller seminars and focused courses.
In thinking of the Stanford’s commitment to the liberal arts education, THINK should not be the means by which such goals are met. Improvement of breadth in courses would come from a reform in WAYS requirements, an increase in interdisciplinary studies— not in promoting liberal education lite as a supplement to the full and diverse diet students need to succeed.
You can contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.