A thousand students shuffle to Frost Amphitheater in the cold for another lecture required by Stanford’s new mandatory core. The lecture is boring. People scroll discreetly on their phones. They complain about being forced to take a class they dislike when hundreds of classes interest them more. This is the risk Stanford is taking with its ambitious plan to redesign the first-year academic experience.
But those same thousand students could also be brought together by the Core, meeting after class to debate a point of contention, sharing ideas over dinner as friends and applying their experiences to later challenges as alumni.
Out of our belief in the latter vision, we support the Long-Range Planning efforts to redesign and centralize Stanford’s first-year experience. The plan’s promise to revitalize liberal education at Stanford — if delivered upon — is compelling. However, there are key concerns the University must address in its implementation of the plan, should the Faculty Senate approve it, ranging from explanations of syllabi to a greater focus on pedagogy.
In the last decade, Stanford has been embroiled in a conversation about the undergraduate curriculum’s fidelity to the University’s stated goals. In 2012, Stanford abolished the then first-year requirement, Introduction to the Humanities (IHUM), in favor of the current Thinking Matters Program. Though the goal was to encourage exploration, the First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience and Exploration Design team concedes that the gambit failed. First-year students overwhelmingly use their increased flexibility to fulfill pre-major requirements, primarily in large STEM classes, according to the report. This is the crux of the design committee’s concern: that Stanford has lost sight of the intellectual exploration and humanistic focus a first-year liberal arts experience demands.
What then does “recommitting to a liberal arts education” look like, according to the proposal? PWR 1 will remain a first-year requirement, though Thinking Matters is on the chopping block. In its place will come a three-quarter mandatory Stanford Core sequence, in which all first-year students apart from those in SLE and ITALIC will be enrolled. The Core will cover a different theme every quarter: “Liberal Education” in the fall, “Citizenship in the 21st Century” in the winter and “Global Perspectives” in the spring. These three focus areas are designed to center upon the self, society and the world, respectively.
The fall quarter “Liberal Education” course will be a lecture series designed for 1,000 students, delving into issues ranging from the self versus community to free speech. In the winter, the Core turns its attention to topics like ethics and citizenship, utilitarianism, genetic engineering and Stanford’s Fundamental Standard in weekly seminars and larger plenary sessions. Spring quarter’s “Global Perspectives” requirement is the most flexible, fulfilled by an array of classes including but not limited to HISTORY 1C: “History in Global Perspective” and EARTHSYS 106: “World Food Economy.”
We concur with some justifications the report presents in favor of the Core. We agree that standardizing the freshman year intellectual experience would unify students and build a stronger academic community. Having something in common with every other frosh can foster intellectual discussion outside the classroom that doesn’t always crop up organically. Though the proposal does not mandate a residential requirement, the committee hopes that residential programming will supplement each of the three quarters to cement the Core as a “shared first-year learning experience.”
For students not in SLE or ITALIC, the “center of gravity” of the first-year academic experience largely lies in STEM pre-major requirements and large introductory classes. Over 71% of students take CS106A or CS106B in their first year. STEM enrollment grows even larger when including Math, Physics and Chemistry classes.
Early exposure to the liberal arts offers students still deciding between STEM and humanities fields the space to try the latter without falling behind. As the report points out, all-around pressure to decide and start fulfilling a major right away prevents exploration, especially for prospective premeds and STEM students. A major should reflect a path of interest, not an obligation. The Core won’t necessarily change that path for everyone, but it might for some.
All of these potential benefits of the proposed Core depend, however, on how well the program is executed. First, besides proffering a lengthy philosophical defense of the liberal education model, the current proposal neither explains why particular texts and authors have been included nor describes why they are believed to dialogue effectively with each other. There are a great number of candidate texts that may be included in a class that investigates themes of the self, society, and world. The Core should be commended for recognizing the diversity of influences on contemporary thought, but its task now must be to justify these selections and to animate dialogue between them in a coherent fashion.
In this vein, the Core staff should not shy away from the inevitable criticisms that will be levied against the Core’s implementation. Students, as citizens of the Stanford community, have not only a right but an imperative to engage in ongoing conversation on what the ideal form of a universal requirement should be. While it may be easy to label such responses as reactionary, we believe that discourse on the course itself may well turn out to be one of the most productive conversations generated by the first-year core. That conversation should be embraced, not dismissed as intellectually immature.
More importantly, teaching quality will determine the new Core’s success. Engaging lecturers transform mundane topics into fascinating stories, while dry lecturers twist compelling content into forgettable narratives. The report expounds on its hopes for a shared intellectual community that will serve as a wellspring for conversation. But we found its lack of focus on pedagogy concerning. Ensuring cohesion between different lecturers and assuring individual lecturer quality is critical. The committee discusses incentives for faculty who teach in the new core, such as a $5,000 salary supplement. But these incentives don’t differentiate between better teachers and worse ones: attracting faculty isn’t the same as attracting the best faculty.
Students are commonly advised to take the professor, not the class. For two of the three quarters in the core sequence, they lack that choice. We think the promise of liberal education justifies this constriction of agency. We also think it means the institution has an obligation to deliver on that promise.