Chip Blacker reveals why he can't say no to Sophomore College

Chip Blacker

Chip Blacker

Chip Blacker isn't kidding when he admits to harboring a "missionary zeal" about teaching Sophomore College.

He knows that the dozen or so students he selects from as many as 150 applicants for his intensive two-week course, American Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, are among the nation's next leaders.

"I know it and they know it," Blacker said during a Feb. 10 lecture in the "Award-Winning Teachers on Teaching" series. "So while it's fun, it's also deadly serious."

Blacker is director of the Stanford Institute for International Studies (SIIS) and professor, by courtesy, of political science. In 2001, he received the Laurence and Naomi Carpenter Hoagland Prize for undergraduate teaching and a year later was named the Olivier Nomellini Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.

Blacker, a member of the Sophomore College—or SoCo—faculty since 1998, describes his course as a "kinder and gentler" version of a graduate seminar he started teaching in 1996. The Soviet and arms control expert had just returned to campus from Washington, D.C., where he served for two years as President Clinton's special assistant for national security affairs and as a senior director at the National Security Council. Back on campus, Blacker discovered that Stanford did not offer any courses on U.S. foreign policy. "This was especially surprising to me, because we offer courses on everything else at this place, including some that would be a stretch for me to regard as having equal merit," he said. "Acquainting students with foreign policy issues strikes me as quite central to the education of students who have an interest in the world beyond our borders."

Blacker said he continues to be compelled to teach SoCo even though it means that a book manuscript on U.S.-Russian relations languishes unfinished. And he returns despite his increasing responsibilities since being named director of SIIS in 2003 and becoming co-chair last year of the Faculty Steering Committee of the International Initiative, a major new effort seeking to improve the university's ability to address global issues related to security, governance and human well-being.

"So why can't I just let go of SoCo?" Blacker mused. "It's just been a really, really interesting experience."

Blacker said Sophomore College remains a priority for him in part because it's so rewarding. Unlike typical seminars, which have up to 20 students, or large lecture courses, SoCo's class size is kept small on purpose. "If you teach, you know this is a special treat," Blacker said. "When it comes to teaching, small really is better." Although the class meets for two hours of daily instruction, with meals and social events included the group is together four hours a day. It's an intense but welcome experience, he said.

In addition, students vying for admittance know they face stiff competition, so Blacker can be assured they will share his passion for U.S. foreign policy. "We get to hit the ground running," he said. "Both sides in this equation live and breathe the stuff."

Blacker also said he remains committed to SoCo because he gets to influence a highly motivated group of undergraduates early in their college careers. Describing himself as an "academic cradle robber," Blacker said he is able to direct his students' energy and passion far earlier than the upperclassmen and graduates he usually teaches.

"It affords me the opportunity to acquaint these wonderfully gifted, if still imperfectly formed, Stanford students with the extraordinary issues before us in the foreign policy realm," he said, "while at the same time begin to equip them with the tools I think they're going to need to be effective in dealing with these challenges down the line."

Blacker knows his SoCo students will succeed. Graduates of the class today hold top positions in the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the U.S. government, at leading international agencies such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and in dozens of foreign ministries around the world, he said.

Consequently, Blacker makes sure that those admitted understand the implicit bargain between a teacher and a student: "I'll share whatever knowledge and experience I have with you but, in exchange, you must accept the responsibility that goes along with it, especially the obligation to think critically and act responsibly."

With 25 years of classroom experience and two tours of government service behind him, Blacker said he welcomes his roles as a teacher and a mentor but also his responsibility in helping to prepare students for the future.

"It's not just about knowledge, although that remains at the core of my efforts," he said. "It's also about character and judgment and integrity and humility. It's about doing the right thing and leading a moral life."

Blacker uses the intimate experience fostered by Sophomore College to teach these broader lessons. "I want them to welcome responsibility and to use their authority wisely," he said of his students. "I want them to appreciate the importance of a life well and justly lived. I want them to make me and my colleagues at this extraordinary university proud of them for who they are, or who they have become, and not for what they have acquired."