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Senate conducts Round One of breadth requirement debate

At Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting, members and guests discussed two proposals designed to implement the new nondisciplinary undergraduate breadth requirements called Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing. A second discussion is scheduled for May 17.

L.A. Cicero Caroline Hoxby addressing the Faculty Senate.

Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics, addressing the Faculty Senate.

Thursday's Faculty Senate meeting was almost solely devoted to the question of what constitutes a liberal education and how best to ensure that Stanford's undergraduates leave the university with a breadth of capacities.

Under consideration are two proposals designed to implement Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing – a new model of breadth requirements recommended in the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES).

The study, released in January, recommended a model that promotes the acquisition and development of "seven essential capacities." It would replace the current breadth requirements, which prescribe courses in particular disciplines. The report recommended that students be required to take 11 courses distributed over seven categories.

The Committee on Undergraduate Standards and Policy (C-USP), which was charged with translating the SUES recommendations into university legislation, offered a proposal that differed from the original.

C-USP's Proposed University Breadth Requirements recommends that, beginning with the Class of 2017, students must complete one course in each of eight Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing categories: aesthetic and interpretive inquiry; social inquiry; scientific analysis; formal reasoning; quantitative reasoning; engaging difference; moral and ethical reasoning; and creative expression.

Judith Goldstein, chair of C-USP, said the committee wanted to assure that the reasoning behind the new system of breadth requirements was transparent to students, and that the categories in the Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing model were coherent.

"We have come to believe as a committee that students do best when they feel as if they are taking charge of their own education, so student choice was something we wanted to maximize," Goldstein, a professor of political science, said during a 30-minute presentation on the proposal.

"We wanted to, if possible, reduce, or at least not increase, the requirement footprint," she continued. "The issue of what the requirements would be is, in a sense, a value judgment – whether or not you believe students should be required to do something, or whether or not they should be advised to do something. We came down not on requirements, and more on advising."

In an amendment to that proposal, presented by Chris Edwards, professor of mechanical engineering, and Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics, undergraduates would be required to complete 11 courses in seven categories.

In four of those categories - aesthetic and interpretive inquiry; social inquiry; scientific analysis; and formal and quantitative reasoning - two courses would be required. In three other categories - engaging difference; moral and ethical reasoning; and creative expression - one course would be required. Their proposal, titled Proposed Amendment to the C-USP Proposal on the Breadth Requirement, mirrored the recommendations of the SUES report.

Edwards, who served as chair of the SUES subcommittee on breadth, and Hoxby, who was a member of the subcommittee, presented a detailed spreadsheet outlining the general education requirements at several peer institutions including Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Berkeley, MIT and Caltech. 

Noting that they also looked at institutions beyond Stanford's peers, Hoxby said there were several common models for undergraduate breadth. Some institutions had no requirements, just a "general injunction" that breadth is good. Others had the general injunction and departmental requirements, with no connection between the two. Others, like University of Chicago, had the Great Books model, which was popular with students but restrictive and inflexible.

"The Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing model forces us to explain why we are asking students to do what we are asking them to do," Hoxby said.

Hoxby said there were two reasons why the SUES subcommittee on breadth considered what peer institutions were doing.

"The first is that we have some respect for our peer institutions," she said, adding that if the educated community of the United States and of the world thinks something is important, perhaps Stanford should also consider it important.

"In addition, there's a reason why in breadth we should be particularly clear that peer institutions' opinions matter – at least somewhat. I'm not saying that they dictate, but they matter at least somewhat," she said.

"That is, what would it mean to have a student who we said was broadly educated, but when he or she went out into the rest of the world, everyone from the other top institutions in the world said, 'Oh, that person is extremely narrowly educated.' What would that mean? There's a way in which you cannot be part of the educated community of the world unless other people also believe you're part of the educated community of the world."

Each of the two proposals contains detailed descriptions of the rationale for each category included in the Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing model, as well as the "learning outcomes" in each category.

For instance, both proposals agree that students taking a course in social inquiry should:

  • Be able to apply the methods of research and inquiry from at least one social science discipline to the study of human experience.
  • Understand what makes a question about human behavior empirically tractable and significant.
  • Exhibit a capacity to think historically, recognizing the reciprocal relationship of social context and individual action and the reality of change over time.
  • Possess the capacity to critically evaluate primary and secondary source materials, and to use both to fashion explanations for social and historical phenomena.

Much of the senate's discussion centered on which proposal would ultimately result in more breadth. Some senators argued that requiring students to take fewer courses would give them more choice and encourage more experimentation. 

Eric Roberts, a professor of computer science, spoke in favor of the C-USP proposal, applauding the fact that the committee had reduced the number of breadth requirements to one course each in eight Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing categories, compared with 11 courses in seven categories recommended in the SUES report.

Roberts questioned the SUES report's recommendation that students take two courses in some categories and only one in others. He argued that no matter what the faculty said, students would believe that categories with a two-course requirement were "twice as important" as the categories with a one-course requirement.

"That would set a terrible precedent," Roberts said.

Speaking in favor of the Edwards/Hoxby proposal, Richard Saller, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said it was important to consider how Stanford was positioned vis-a-vis other universities.

"From where I sit, outside perceptions of Stanford actually are important," Saller said. "They have effects on faculty recruitment. They have effects on student recruitment. The fact that only 10 percent of our majors now are in the humanities and only 10 percent of our applicants are in the humanities is a source of concern."

Saller said he worries that the C-USP proposal, if adopted, would contribute to Stanford's "Get Rich U" reputation, referring to an April 30 profile of Stanford in The New Yorker magazine.

"The change from the SUES proposal to the C-USP proposal would just be fodder for that kind of stereotype," Saller said.

Dan DeLong, representative of the ASSU Undergraduate Senate, said he would be talking to a lot of students in the coming weeks to discuss the differences in the proposals. He noted that either proposal's success would rest on whether the undergraduate requirements would be presented in a way that allows students to "identify courses that they really want to engage in."

Minutes available next week

The full minutes of the meeting, including the question-and-answer sessions that followed the presentations, will be available next week on the senate's website.

The senate will continue its discussion on breadth requirements at the next meeting on May 17.