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'An Influence on Behalf of Humanity'

Citizen-building has always been our goal.

Photo: Glenn Matsumura

By John Hennessy

The weeks that have passed since the tragic events of September 11 have done little to diminish the shock and horror we all felt. That day changed our world as we know it. Throughout the Stanford community of faculty, students, staff and alumni, we have seen an increased appreciation for the importance of education and for Stanford’s role in preparing young people for leadership in the world.

As I pointed out in an e-mail message that I sent to Stanford alumni shortly after the attacks, Leland and Jane Stanford set the following goal for Stanford in the University’s founding grant:

“to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

We have not swayed from this goal. Indeed, the tragedies in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania have strengthened our appreciation and deepened our resolve in that regard.

With a renewed determination, we are asking ourselves how best to structure undergraduate education to achieve this goal. This is not a new question for Stanford University. Some of you may not know that the Stanfords, at first, were determined that their university would significantly depart from the mold of classical learning and offer “practical education.” As their thoughts developed, however, they moved to a model that would combine professional training with the arts and humanities.

This evolution was just one way the Stanfords made clear that their upstart Western university would not be constrained by the conventional thinking of the time. Their bold philosophy was also evident in a coeducational student body, a nonsectarian affiliation and the admission of students based on ability rather than wealth and status. These courageous characteristics reinforced the aim of the University to produce useful and educated citizens who would contribute to the common good.

As their thoughts about education matured, Leland Stanford made those views quite clear. He wrote that the best way to achieve the goal of preparing young people to be good citizens was to give each individual a “liberal education as to enable him to understand, appreciate, and enjoy the knowledge of others.”

This high purpose of undergraduate education has never been far from the top of Stanford’s agenda. Different generations of the University’s leaders have approached this objective in different ways, depending on the critical issues of the time.

When the Stanford faculty were considering making the core undergraduate curriculum broader and more culturally inclusive—a move that some politicians and pundits criticized—President Donald Kennedy posed some of the salient issues to the Faculty Senate.

“What ought to be the common intellectual property of every educated person?” Kennedy asked. “That question taps powerful convictions [that] owe in part to our own cultural backgrounds and commitments, which in a diverse society are sometimes in conflict. I hope we can . . . concentrate upon our own objective—which is to help shape critical, committed citizens who will be prepared to exercise thoughtful leadership. What do we owe them?”

In light of the recent events, we again find ourselves asking what we owe the current generation of students. How do we support them as they strive to become committed citizens? How do we prepare this generation for leadership in a more global and more complex world? One thing is clear. We must help our students understand the increasingly diverse world in which we live.

As I wrote in a letter to the parents of undergraduates earlier this fall, I can think of no better place than an institution of higher learning to confront these questions. While I am sure that our response to this challenge will develop over time, I can say with certainty that Stanford is more dedicated than ever to being a leader in shaping a generation of citizens who are up to the historic task of building a better world.

In the end, that is what I believe a good undergraduate education must do. In that sense, the Stanfords’ original vision was prescient. A Stanford education should combine the sciences and the humanities. It should foster the integration of the practical and the classical. It should produce graduates who are both expert in a field and broadly educated. It should promote personal advancement and the public welfare. This is what the exceptional students who come to Stanford will ask of us. This is what we owe them.

Five Stanford alumni lost their lives in the tragic events of September 11. In memory of their role as members of the Stanford community and their many contributions to society, we have established a permanent scholarship in each of their names.

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