Education as Self-Fashioning is both fascinating and practical. Stanford should support its expansion.
One of the most memorable days of my freshman fall quarter was a trip to the Getty Villa and Museum in Los Angeles. My Education as Self-Fashioning (ESF) classmates, our professor Blair Hoxby, his wife and economics professor Caroline Hoxby (definition of a “power couple”), and I congregated in the dark outside Stern at 5am, piled into a bus, and headed to SFO. A few hours later, with the Pacific Ocean in the background, we were exploring the gardens, sculptures, and buildings of J. Paul Getty’s replica of Roman emperor Hadrian’s villa. Previously, we studied how villa architecture and how our surroundings – both environment and architecture – affect our well-being and intellectual development, so it was vivid and powerful to experience it firsthand. Afterwards, exhausted from our day in the sun, we headed to the Getty Museum to view an exhibit of Hellenistic bronzes. Bonding over our delayed flight at the airport, we were still back at Stanford before midnight.
Knocking out PWR and Thinking Matters in one fall-quarter, 7-unit, freshman-only class, ESF entails bi-weekly writing sections, a weekly seminar taught by a professor, and a lecture series from experts on Chinese philosophy, educational economics, quantum mechanics, and other topics. There were five ESF seminar themes in the fall. Stanford’s website explains that in ESF, “we explore the idea of cultivating self from many different perspectives. We consider writings about education by intellectuals working in various fields, with the aim of articulating the ways that education can be used to structure one’s thinking, one’s self, and ultimately one’s life as a whole.”
ESF illustrates the relevance of the humanities, while fulfilling the university’s educational purpose better than THINK and PWR and connecting freshmen to faculty and other students. It is an exemplary freshman education program and should be expanded.
Why? In many ways, “Education as Self-Fashioning” is the theme of the Stanford experience. After all, four years at Stanford have the potential to transform your intellect and character. Because Stanford does not provide the structure of a core curriculum, which tells students what is important to study, it is incredibly valuable for students at the beginning of their Stanford experience to contemplate how they want to fashion themselves through college. After all, they’ll be making these decisions for themselves constantly for four years. Even a powerhouse STEM student who enters Stanford with a quarter-by-quarter plan to major and coterm in CS in four years wonders about the best use of their time or what makes an ideal education. ESF encourages students to study how great thinkers of the past, from Marcus Aurelius to W.E.B. DuBois to Confucius, approached these questions. How did successful historical figures use their education to develop new philosophies, work against racism, and lead countries?
On the practical side, ESF is a better alternative to THINK, PWR1 and SLE for the majority of students. The university seems to want to accomplish two main goals in its freshman programs. First, through THINK, Stanford attempts to “help freshman students develop a sense for what constitutes a genuine question or problem and how to address it in a creative and disciplined manner […] build[ing] on a nearly 90-year tradition of undergraduate liberal education at Stanford.” Second, PWR1 teaches students “how to gather, evaluate, analyze, and integrate a range of sources (both primary and secondary) into their own writing.”
However, it is difficult to see how exactly THINK promotes liberal education: it is one class chosen by the student on a narrow topic. Certainly, it accomplishes the goal of exploring one area in depth, but it doesn’t clearly contribute further. In fact THINK classes seem little different from normal classes except for their composition of all freshmen. SLE is at the other extreme, an immersive freshman experience studying great works of philosophy, literature, religion, painting, and film. For most, though, 24 units of freshman year is too great of a commitment, ruling out other classes and making scheduling difficult.
ESF is a better alternative to THINK, PWR, and SLE, incorporating the best aspects of each. While ESF, like PWR, requires writing assignments – a short Argument Analysis, a Work in Context, and an extended research paper – these assignments are based on great works read and discussed in class. By contrast, PWR1 papers often seem out-of-context because the themes of the classes – globalization, digital language, and so on – often seem to serve only as a vehicle for teaching writing. ESF provides context for writing assignments through readings on a topic, like “Chinese Traditions of the Self” or “How to be a Public Intellectual.” It gives students a small, freshman-centric class like THINK while studying the liberal arts like SLE. While many students don’t have the luxury to major in the humanities, ESF lets students ask a question of the humanities relevant to both engineering and humanities majors – what makes an ideal education? – while also fulfilling several requirements.
The small class sizes and frequent meetings in ESF also help freshmen form friendships outside of their dorms during their first quarter. Especially as we tend to segregate ourselves by our interests and dorms later on, ESF facilitates diverse friendships through a common intellectual experience shared four days a week. Beyond our freshman cohort, it is explicitly designed to connect students to faculty. Seminar professors advise and inspire freshmen – they aren’t all intimidatingly intelligent, white-bearded old men (and, even if they are, they’re surprisingly nice!). At Friday guest lectures, ESF requires students to participate by asking questions, encouraging participation in public intellectual debate.
Even if it hadn’t included an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles, taking ESF would have been one of the best decisions I made at Stanford. I hope the Writing and Rhetoric Requirement Governance Board will consider seriously expanding the program; this year more applications were received than there were spots. More students taking ESF will mean more students connecting with faculty, making freshman friends in a common educational experience, and improving their writing while contemplating relevant topics in the humanities.