Remodeling Our Curriculum for the 21st Century
Breadth and depth, and a new emphasis on critical thinking.
Photo: Glenn Matsumura
By John Hennessy
"What do we want our students to gain from their time on the Farm? How do we best prepare them for local, national and global citizenship?" These questions, posed by Provost John Etchemendy, PhD '82, and then-Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education John Bravman, '79, MS '81, PhD '85, launched the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) in January 2010.
Most members of the incoming Class of 2016 were just born when the University undertook its last comprehensive look at undergraduate education in 1993-1994. The Commission on Undergraduate Education (CUE) redefined the undergraduate experience at Stanford, but in the intervening years the world and the University have changed. In that time we also have gained many insights into the effectiveness of our undergraduate program.
In response, the SUES committee has proposed a new approach to undergraduate education. For the past two years, the 17 committee members consulted faculty, University leaders, undergraduates and alumni. Building on their feedback and CUE's strong foundation, they issued a report earlier this year with 55 recommendations. (More information on SUES.)
An undergraduate curriculum that builds both breadth and depth of knowledge is vital in this century. With the majors providing depth, the SUES committee recommended new, non-disciplinary breadth requirements. Innovative "Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing" courses were proposed to develop essential skills and capacities, such as aesthetic and interpretive inquiry, social inquiry, scientific analysis, formal and quantitative reasoning, moral and ethical reasoning, and creative expression.
Perhaps the most important outcome of SUES is a strong ongoing commitment to liberal education for all students whatever their major. At a time when many institutions are abandoning a commitment to a liberal education, Stanford's faculty believes that our future graduates will be best served by being broadly educated. Several changes implemented in the mid-1990s were maintained, including a foreign language requirement and a two-quarter sequence on writing and rhetoric. Our faculty believe that communication skills are a lifelong asset, as is capability in another language.
Informed by the SUES recommendations, the Faculty Senate will specify the exact undergraduate requirements. While that process is ongoing, several recommendations already have been approved. All freshmen will take a "Thinking Matters" course, organized around questions or problems, that will help them make the transition to university-level thinking, approach complex topics from multiple disciplinary viewpoints and develop as critical thinkers.
Freshman seminars were perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the curriculum arising from CUE. Currently almost 60 percent of freshmen take these small group courses, giving them opportunities to work closely with faculty. There was extensive debate about the wisdom of requiring such seminars for all freshmen. In the end, senators felt that a requirement could destroy the "magic" that occurs when faculty and students are driven solely by common interest in a topic. The Faculty Senate voted to encourage but not require students to take a freshman seminar.
One new requirement is in creative expression. This can be filled in a variety of ways, each of which helps students develop the capacity to create, and I believe it will be greatly enhanced by Stanford's ongoing investment in the arts and fostering creativity.
Stanford's mission is to educate tomorrow's leaders. To do so, we have to be willing to challenge our assumptions and to reimagine the Stanford experience. SUES builds on the solid foundation of our traditions, maintaining our strong commitment to a broad liberal education and the opportunity for personal engagement between faculty and students, while it positions our students to be better prepared for a more global and faster changing world.
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