It's Not Easy Being SLE
Students in Structured Liberal Education take a different view.
By David Garfield
The Florence Moore lounge, where Structured Liberal Education (SLE) is taught, looks nothing like a lecture hall--its couches and cushioned chairs next to the lectern afford no anonymity. It was there during a lecture on Indian mythology that I boldly raised my hand and asked, "What is the purpose of demons in Hindu society?" The lecturer glared at me for a moment before bluntly responding, "What do you mean, the purpose of demons? Demons are real. I see demons; don't you?"
How do you respond to a professor who claims to see demons? Juggling papers, tests and a growing social life during freshman year presents enough challenges without demons. It took a year of SLE before I understood what he really meant.
SLE is an alternative to the freshman core curriculum. Some 70 freshmen enroll, based on their personal choice and a review of their admission applications by the SLE faculty. The regular IHUM program, the lat-est incarnation of the hotly debated Western Civilization curriculum, is designed to get Stanford freshmen of all prospective disciplines to look at the world more critically. Yet SLE's incessant demands sometimes make you feel like you don't get to see the world at all. Weighing in at a grueling nine units with constant papers, a 24-hour final exam, about 18 books per quarter and a date-killing 3:15 to 7 or 8 p.m. schedule, SLE is not so much a class as a way of life. But most of us in SLE wouldn't have it any other way. Developing a new way of thinking, embracing an evolving collective culture and SLE's resulting lifelong friendships makes all the effort worthwhile.
SLE devours fully half the schedule of even the most ambitious freshman, taking nine of around 18 units. Because all SLE students live in the same dorm and class is taught in a lounge not 20 yards from your door, the program pretty much consumes your world. We studied 3,000 years of human culture from the Bhagavad-Gita to Nietzsche and then tried to pull it all together to address classic questions like "What is a tragic hero and who in the Bible best fits that role?" and "If Don Quixote and Descartes were stranded on a desert island together, what would they talk about?" Dreaming up answers--like seeing demons--stretched the imagination.
While everyone in SLE tends to be pretty chummy from the start--all of its participants are self-selected--after 10 weeks of reading shared assignments we develop a cohesive culture that borders on the absurd. We make obscure jokes, we banter philosophy and we get really, really excited when a playwright visits. One Saturday night, while a certain unnamed frosh dorm held a keg party, we held a symposium complete with cheap wine and mock togas. I think you can guess which event was more popular with the general student body.
You don't just take SLE, you live it, and at times this is like wearing a big scarlet letter--you're not so popular with the neighbors.
I have a theory: every social group needs a nerdy kid to pick on. Since the typical Stanford student was the nerdy kid in high school, there has to be some reorganization of the social order here, and SLE products seem to take the roles of campus dweebs. I've attended parties where I was treated as perfectly normal, until someone leaked my secret . . . that I was a SLE kid. While I may not be the pale hermit they had envisioned, they still looked at me as if I had a benign social disease. Even now, months after my SLE tenure ended, my friends on the "outside" still call me SLE-boy. They think it's funny.
With the demonic social constraints and the hard work, you may wonder why anyone would sign up for SLE. Also consider that with so many budding intellectuals in one place the grade distribution is less than generous. We do it because we love it. Bonded by our camaraderie and gently persecuted by the rest of campus, SLE is a real community of scholars. The material extends beyond the bounds of the classroom and permeates every facet of our lives until we, too, see those demons.
I know now that my professor didn't mean real demons. The demons he envisions are the cultural creations of every society. They are the social constructs that are real because we make them so, and it took me a year of immersion, pushing and exploring to see them. But now I do; as strange as they are, I wouldn't trade them for anything, even if it meant I could finally get a date for Saturday night.
David Garfield, '03, is a biology major from Tucson, Arizona.
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