Newly Proposed Undergraduate Requirements are Worse than the Old Ones

The recent Study on Undergraduate Education proposes “radical” changes to the course offerings, requirements, and structure of the Stanford undergraduate program. While the Study “attempts to get at the root of teaching and learning,” the solutions it offers to perceived problems in the IHUM and the GER breadth requirements suggest that its interpretation of focus group surveys, faculty input, and student feedback will merely further the deficiencies in the programs most in need of reform.

The Study puts forth the goals of teaching students “ways of thinking and doing,” and integrating undergraduates’ academic experience.  Of course, to achieve the latter in full is an impossible task: Stanford students come to the university with distinctly different expectations of what they wish to do with their years as college students; and student performance, choice of major, and course selections all reflect clear differences in the rigor, content, and quality of academic experience. And it is surely very difficult to achieve the former without a common knowledge of the specifics and history of thought and action through the centuries: akin to trying to teach musical improvisation without listening to the compositions or improvisations of successful musicians.

Unfortunately, the Study, in its recommendations for IHUM and GER, merely exacerbates the tendencies and fallacies that are at the heart of the problems it seeks to alleviate. It notes that the shared undergraduate experience of IHUM, into which the university has invested considerable time, is poorly received by students and suggests several explanations: classes are too large, grades are always a B, and IHUM doesn’t count toward major requirements. In response, the committee suggests the introduction of a simplified freshman requirement by eliminating both IHUM and PWR: one quarter of writing, one “Thinking Matters” course, and one freshman seminar.  This proposal is counterproductive.

Firstly, the PWR program is broadly respected by students for its ability to polish important skills in communication and writing (universally neglected in American high schools), and reducing the requirement to one quarter halves this salutary impact. It is not clear that existing freshman seminars, which have mostly minimal writing requirements, would compensate for the loss of a second quarter of research-oriented academic writing. But the bigger issue is that “Thinking Matters” (just in case Stanford undergraduates who applied to the school for four years of thinking didn’t know) is not only an infantilized name but essentially an even more IHUM-y version of IHUM.

Students don’t disike IHUM because it is too hard or because the classes are too large (that applies to many popular classes on campus).  They dislike IHUM because it is dumbed-down and inconsistent: it does not actually make them better writers or more knowledgeable thinkers. The wide variety of texts that are used in different IHUMs (many of dubious intellectual merit), the rampant use of teaching fellows who have no background in the subject area upon which they are ostensibly guiding a discussion (such as the hiring of jazz history researchers to teach a course on literary interpretation of the Civil War), and the lack of serious intellectual content in many lectures turn off students much more than a core curriculum of conventionally taught masterpieces of Western (and Eastern) literature, history, and philosophy would.

I distinctly remember students in my IHUM complaining about a lecture in which the professor wasted our time making up connections between a painting from the late 19th century and the Civil War: none of which were corroborated by other scholarly research or interpretation.

By attempting to teach “ways of thinking” without a proper background in thought and by insulting students’ intelligence and sense of fair play, IHUM exacerbates the divisions in undergraduate experience it supposedly seeks to eliminate.  “Thinking Matters” is an even more dumbed-down version of IHUM, with even greater inconsistency in discipline, structure, and approach. Some of the suggestions for course titles include such vaporous idiocies as “Energy,” “Brain, Behavior, and Evolution” and “Evil.” If students have not achieved a basic understanding of the works that form the bedrock of the Western civilization in which we live and of which Stanford is a pristine product, it is very likely that they will not be able to apply the Western way of inquiry into thought and action on more complicated topics of current research.

The committee’s recommendations on the GER system are even more alarming. More than once during my fall quarter IHUM, I remembered thinking that a study of how the Civil War is remembered in American memory would be more productive if students all had the same grasp of exactly what happened during the Civil War—the discussion sections revealed that this was not the case. Unfortunately, the Study’s proposed use of seven new breadth areas to supplant the GER system of Education for Citizenship and Disciplinary Breadth repeats the same mistake seven times: assuming that students can learn to inquire without providing them a common background on the subject of inquiry.

The biggest problem with the GER system, of course, is that it is prejudiced against science and engineering students: while IHUM, PWR, and DB requirements are mandatory for engineers, students from other disciplines can take “Sleep and Dreams,” the equivalent of pre-calculus, and freshman seminars to satisfy their SME requirements—none of which provide the rigor and background in science and math that all college students graduating in the Information Age need. Instead of addressing this issue, the committee creates a monstrous 11-course breadth requirement.

While science and math are typically given short shrift (airy titles for breadth such as “Formal and Quantitative Reasoning” and “Scientific Analysis” suggest that the current paradigm will continue), all undergraduates will be forced to do “aesthetic and interpretive inquiry” with no prior background requirement on arts, humanities, or philosophy, “social inquiry” with no prior background requirement in American civics, political philosophy, or the Western democratic model of government, and “moral and ethical reasoning” with no prior background requirement in theories of ethics. And of course, in a bow to the identity-group mentality on campus, we must also all learn about “Engaging Difference.” Wouldn’t it be better for an “integrated undergraduate academic experience” if we learned how to engage similarity?

We are all similar: we are students at a prestigious Western institution in the United States, whose Western Enlightenment tradition of free thought, political republicanism, and civic virtue have enabled this intellectual community to exist, uniquely and independently.  It might behoove us to learn a little bit more in four years about this rich tradition and its ability to bring us all together.

Vasant Ramachandran ’11 majored in Electrical Engineering. His interests include skiing and classical languages. He can be reached at [email protected].

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