General Education Requirements Still Lacking Citizenship Training

After more than a year of work, the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) has finally come to an end. Among the various suggestions from the committee, the envisioned overhaul of the freshmen experience and other general education requirements seems to be the most anticipated.

While the Stanford Review Editorial Board appreciates the committee’s attempts to make the academic requirements at Stanford more flexible yet still comprehensive, it is also bothered by the lack of focus on liberal education, and specifically by the lack of requirements in civic eduction. The Association of American Colleges and Universities defines a liberal education: “It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.”

To be fair, the committee attempts to include requirements that might be part of a liberal education. The replacement for the GER system, now called “Ways of thinking, ways of doing,” requires two courses in “aesthetic and interpretive inquiry,” one course in “moral and ethical reasoning,” and one course in “creative expression.” The first would mainly be humanities classes, the second philosophy-based classes, and the third artistic classes.

These requirements seem to lead to at least some courses in line with a liberal education. But the problem rests in how the university will decide which courses fulfill the requirement. The committee foresees a system in which most of the classes at Stanford would fall into one of the general education requirements. This raises the concern, though, of whether or not too many classes will satisfy a certain requirement, so that some of the classes actually become convenient ways to get around truly learning these vital subjects. The variety of classes offered will mean that the quality of liberal education in each one will not be equal.

For example, one might take a moral and ethical reasoning course in bioethics. While bioethics will certainly approach many questions of philosophy and ethics, it probably will not take the time to go into the development of ethics questions from the ground up, from the questions of the Greeks, to Kant, to modern ethical questions.

Our concern is not the inability of certain classes at Stanford to train the mind to think about ethics, or to interpret works of art, or to create works of art. The new requirements will lead students to courses that train them how to do these things. The real concern is the lack of requirement for students to gain this training while learning about the vital components of these subject areas. For example, in moral and ethical reasoning classes, students should be required to learn about the moral foundations of democratic government and of civic engagement. This might require reading Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and John Locke.

Our biggest critique, then, is that the suggested program to replace the current GER system still does not require students to learn about these vital areas of citizenship. We are not calling for a Western civilization requirement (though that would be beneficial). We would simply like to see one or two required classes that teach students about ethics, philosophy, and government in order to prepare students to be better citizens. Foreign students too would benefit from a generalized preparation for citizenship requirement.

One of Stanford’s purposes calls on the university to be “inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We will not venture to define the “great principles of government,” but will simply encourage the university to require some type of course that provides civic training for students.

While this problem could be solved with the new general education requirements, it can also be solved in the freshmen program. The new freshmen program requires students to take one mandatory quarter of an Introductory Seminar, one quarter of PWR, and one quarter of a new program called “Thinking Matters.” The SUES committee explains the purpose: “Thinking Matters courses are meant to bring students immediately into university-level thinking by engaging them in rigorous consideration of large or enduring questions.”

These courses have a lot of potential, but they might also be the place to require civic education. The courses could focus on liberal education (classics, literature, moral philosophy) that would prepare students for citizenship. Every freshmen would be required to take one course.

The idea of having freedom in choosing one’s academic pathways is one of the concepts that makes Stanford such an appealing place. But the Editorial Board believes that Stanford has a responsibility to provide more than just career training to students who come through the university. At least as long as it purports to provide a liberal education to Stanford students, the university must work to fill in the cracks and ensure that every student leaves Stanford with the basics of humanities and citizenship.

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