For Undergrads, a Need for a Common Experience

Few academic programs at Stanford are as challenging to reform as IHUM, the Introduction to the Humanities course required throughout freshman year. Stanford University may be ranked third in the nation for best classroom experience by The Princeton Review, but freshman begin their studies in one of the worst classroom experiences available here, crowded into large lecture halls for required classes whose educational value has never been fully explained.

The bile over the program has not been lost on the on-going Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), which until now quietly avoided the issue of IHUM. Even so, faculty members have not been shy in voicing strong criticisms of the program. Indeed, the first question after a presentation to the Faculty Senate on the study’s progress concerned IHUM.

The limited visible utility of the program and its extraordinarily poor reception among students indicates that the program should be immediately eliminated. Yet I believe that IHUM actually does have a place in the curriculum, if we radically reform our approach.

The core question this debate raises is over the meaning of a Stanford degree. What are the common experiences that bind Stanford students together? Asking students this question tends to elicit answers that describe characteristics such as “entrepreneurial” or events like Big Game or the San Francisco Scavenger Hunt. Rarely does the answer revolve around a shared intellectual experience.

That is unfortunate. In a world in which specialization (and, I would argue, overspecialization) is encouraged and even demanded, it is the common academic experience that allows engineers to talk to managers and scientists to talk to policymakers. The abundance of choice offered by Stanford is both a blessing and a curse, since the uniqueness of our own academic programs can mean we see only our academic silo and not the wider world around us. Thus, there is a need for a program that can unite these different groups of students.

Unfortunately, IHUM’s primary failure is precisely the same problem: the courses are stove-piped into their respective humanities disciplines with few external connections. Engineers and scientists complain about relevance, and humanities majors deplore the large class sizes that prevent a meaningful dialogue on the material. While we need a shared common experience, IHUM is clearly not fulfilling this role well.

The simple answer would be to return IHUM to its roots. The program did not arise in a vacuum, but rather evolved through a series of programs dating back to the mid-1900s. There have been calls at Stanford for a return to the Great Books or Western Canon approach used at schools like Chicago or Columbia, but such an approach seems highly unlikely here given its history. Furthermore, such a program seems significantly out of date with trends in higher education, such as the growing importance of interdisciplinary skills.

Setting aside the enmity of the Western Canon debate, I propose a different kind of program. I want to see the creation of a junior seminar, modeled after introductory seminars, that provides an integrated experience to a Stanford education. These seminars would focus on a single problem broadly conceived and would bring together students from a myriad of academic disciplines. Thus, a project on a new highway proposal might bring together students from engineering, public policy, ethnic studies, and philosophy, and a project on free speech could bring together computer scientists, historians, political scientists, and musicians.

These seminars offer many advantages. By building the common experience into the junior year, freshman will have more elective courses in their first year, offering the opportunity to explore early enough so that they can make drastic changes in their academic path. Juniors will also be nearing the middle or end of their major, giving them experience in their discipline to bring to the interdisciplinary environment and enough time to make changes in their senior year and postgraduate plans.

Of course, there are downsides to this program proposal. Cost is the most obvious one, since small seminars require vastly higher levels of faculty participation than the current IHUM program. There is also the missed opportunity for students who might discover an interesting topic in the seminar but find there is little time left to change majors. It’s also possible that a program of small seminars will not provide a common experience like a required class that all students take simultaneously.

Nonetheless, universities are not about to reduce choice for students. A junior-year seminar offers the opportunity to build critical thinking skills and discover how interdisciplinary teams work together. It can also be a vehicle to connect to the local community through service-learning and to help build faculty relationships.

A common academic experience is crucial for students to have an intellectual framework to share with their peers. An interdisciplinary, junior-year seminar would provide a rich academic atmosphere to stretch one’s studies in new directions while offering a diversity of perspectives on pressing national and global issues. That is not so different from IHUM’s mission, but it would represent a vast improvement for future students.

Danny Crichton ’11 is majoring in Mathematical and Computational Sciences with a minor in Human Biology. He can be reached at dancric@stanford.edu.

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