IHUM Gets No Respect, and Rightly So

When the Faculty Senate announced the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES), a review of Stanford’s general education requirements, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose first thought was: “Oh good, they’re finally going to get rid of IHUM.”

The program is so universally hated that I sometimes suspect that it was designed to give freshmen some shared misery over which to bond. The mere mention of the name warrants eye-rolls, snorts, and perhaps even faked vomiting from most undergrads. What gives?

All of the specific IHUM complaints I’ve heard from classmates – monotonous lectures, pointless reading, inscrutable grading – are basically issues of execution; I’m sure the faculty can rectify them. It wasn’t until earlier this year that I started to wonder if there was some fundamental issue with the IHUM program. It took a bit of reading and a heated argument at Lag Late Nite before I was able to point to the flaw that cripples IHUM as a general education program in the humanities: it’s a forced compromise between two fundamentally different conceptions of general education.

The first of these two conceptions emphasizes the value of an intensive introduction to the works that have shaped Western civilization. The focus is on philosophy and history, and the goal is to equip students with a solid understanding of the underpinnings of our society. It often involves an obligatory “common core” of courses.

Supporters of this approach argue that it molds educated citizens and supplies them with the basis for a common culture, both among students and throughout the nation. Opponents of this approach claim that such programs often lionize “dead white men” while ignoring the contributions of women and non-white authors. And others complain that the restrictive nature of the “common core” turns students off from the humanities by forcing them to study topics in which they have little to no interest.

The second conception of general education aims to remedy these ills by allowing students a broad range of course choices–or “breadth.” Students select any combination of classes that fulfill a slate of broad-brush requirements: this many humanities courses, this many science courses, etc. The focus here is on the acquisition of critical thinking and writing skills.

Supporters of this approach argue that allowing students to choose general-education courses in which they are genuinely interested will promote eager, engaged learning. Supporters of the first conception counter that this second conception robs students of a common introductory experience, or that it allows students to cherry-pick easy courses and avoid any truly challenging engagement with the humanities.

So here’s my problem with IHUM: it’s not firmly on either side, and in attempting to bridge the gap, it sacrifices the strengths of each approach and retains their weaknesses. Like the “common core” model, it forces students to take a set of courses they would never choose otherwise. But at the same time, because students select different IHUM classes, we never gain the advantage of a true common culture. As in the “breadth” model, there’s an incredible disparity in work-load and difficulty level among IHUM courses. Therefore, it’s fairly easy for students to simply select the easiest class. But because something like three-quarters of every freshman class would never voluntarily study any of the IHUM topics, we lose the advantage of taking courses which promote active interest by appealing to students’ true interests. It’s a muddle that leaves most students bitter and cynical, that forces them through courses they often find painful, and that fails to give them even the beginnings of a true liberal-arts education.

So I’m hoping that when SUES concludes, the Faculty Senate will make a firm choice about Stanford’s stance on general education. I have a definite opinion about which choice we should make, but that’s a story for another column. For now, I’d be happy to just see a choice made. If you agree–or if you disagree–log on to sues.stanford.edu and submit some feedback of your own. And whether you feel like swapping IHUM horror stories or want to defend the program til your last breath, feel free to shoot me an email. Or just come talk to me at Lag Late Nite. I’ve found that the greater part of my humanities education happens outside the classroom, and as with most things, it’s better over chicken fingers.

Kevin Baumgartner ’11 is a proud Bio major & pre-med; his other in­terests include Catholic theology, theater, a capella, and chicken strips. You can reach him at kevbaum@stanford.edu.

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