Life After IHUM

The Faculty Senate convened yesterday to hear what the Commission on Undergraduate Education has found in their 18 month study of undergrad life and academics.  The last time such a committee was formed was in 1994 and at that time they concluded that Stanford is premier research institution with undergrads who don’t know what that means.  Since then departments have fortified their undergraduate programs, spending time and energy on Sophomore College, Honors college, and allocating five million dollars in undergraduate research grants every year.  Other changes since 1994 have been the gradual increase in credit requirements for majors and gen eds, leaving students little freedom to explore their options, especially in the freshman year.

A major shortcoming of undergraduate education, according to the commission, has in fact been the freshman year experience where students are frontloaded with gen eds like PWR and IHUM.  The commission has found that these classes are often taken based upon how easy others claim they are, how often As are given, and rarely because of genuine interest in the topic or reading.  IHUM’s relative failure has oftentimes become synonymous with the humanities in general, prematurely turning people away from a liberal education.

How, then, does the commission envision life after IHUM?  They do not want to do away with the humanities, in fact, their main goal is for Stanford to “reclaim a vision of liberal education”.  But perhaps IHUM is not the best solution.  They suggest a more evenly distributed liberal education, spanning all four years, working in tandem with student’s personal interests and pursuits, informing all fields and paths.  IHUM could be replaced with a “Big Ideas” class, crafted around the exploration of a certain topic in philosophy, literature, ethics, etc.  We are moving away from the survey courses towards more specific and engaged syllabi, to the detriment of the traditional canon but to the advantage of our attention spans.

In addition, smaller freshman seminars should be privileged over large lectures along with a writing course which is believed to be essential to catch students up, so to speak, to the writing Stanford expects.  Apart from these requirements, the commission sees gen eds as spanning student’s entire undergraduate careers, coming from many different departments, and bleeding into dorms through programs such as theme residences and SLE.  Students should navigate through Stanford in different ways, but they should be stimulated and engaged even in required classes, doing away with the feeling that one’s “real” education only happens in their major.

If and when these changes take effect is yet to be determined.  Undergraduate education at Stanford is in constant motion, reinventing itself, pushing students to be better citizens and students, constantly questioning its foundations and remolding itself according to its successes and failures.  However, the de-stigmatization of the humanities is something Stanford needs very badly.  The wildly unpopular IHUM cannot be the ambassador of English, history, philosophy and literature to the undergraduate population.

In short, the merits of a liberal education must find their way back into the Stanford culture in a more productive, interesting and useful way, any ideas?

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