Liberal arts program introduces Stanford freshmen to the enduring value of self-knowledge

The Education as Self-Fashioning program engages incoming students in intense conversations about the meaning of their Stanford education through interdisciplinary seminars, writing workshops and high-profile lecturers.

L.A. Cicero Nicole Jackson

Nicole Jackson, right, participates in Dan Edelstein's seminar, 'How to Be a Public Intellectual,' part of the Education as Self-Fashioning program.

Karl Eikenberry has plenty of real-life experiences to draw on when he tells Stanford freshmen about the importance of a liberal arts background – even on the battlefield.

Eikenberry, an alumnus and now one of four lecturers in the freshman introductory Education as Self-Fashioning (ESF) program, commanded soldiers in Afghanistan as a general in the U.S. Army and then served as ambassador to that country. He has multiple degrees in specialized fields, but he told a class of Stanford students that what boosted him in his career was an interdisciplinary education in military science, history, culture and ethics.

"Specialized training and expert training, be it in medicine, law or business, or as a soldier, in my mind is absolutely rudderless unless you're grounded in and informed by a broad liberal arts education," said Eikenberry, a fellow at Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, who emphasized the value of high verbal and written communication skills in public service.

Now in its second year, the ESF curriculum is designed to help students use their time at Stanford to create fulfilling, meaningful futures for themselves through a liberal arts education.

'How to Be a Public Intellectual'

To do so, students choose of one of several small seminars, which blend perspectives from the humanities and sciences on what makes up the self and its relationship to society. Seminar topics, such as "How to Be a Public Intellectual" and "The German Tradition of Bildung, or How to Become a Global Citizen," are reinforced in weekly writing workshops and a series of open lectures.

"A modern research university provides students with a dazzling array of choices," said Blair Hoxby, associate professor of English and returning ESF instructor. But he adds that in making those choices, students are often not reflecting deeply enough on "what they love, what they hope to accomplish in life, what the role of their present education might be in their future life."

According to Hoxby, the humanities are crucial to that endeavor in part because they "offer us the language to talk about what education is and to help the students reflect on what is of value to them."

Stanford economics Professor Caroline Hoxby developed the ESF concept along with French Professor Dan Edelstein. She points out that ESF is careful not to "espouse the notion that the humanities are more important to the project of self-fashioning than other fields." From ancient times, Hoxby notes, "the liberal arts have included mathematics, the sciences and what we would today call the social sciences."

An expert in the field of public and education economics, Hoxby notes that economists "rigorously analyze human behavior such as the choices people make about their jobs and investments." These analytical skills, along with others like assessing data and uncovering causal relationships, "ultimately force a person to think hard about his or her own decisions and effect on the world."

Planning for four years and beyond

Mathematics Professor Ravi Vakil taught the popular seminar "Rigorous and Precise Thinking" last year, which pushed students to expand beyond their habitual modes of reasoning. He said that some students were surprised to learn, for example, "why writing was perhaps more important in mathematics than in any other discipline."

"The way we think about problems – even the kinds of problems that attract our minds – are affected by certain kinds of learning," he said, and given this concept, the course encourages students to ask how they might plan out the next four years, and the rest of their lives.

In keeping with the interdisciplinary approach, this year's guest lecturers include molecular biologist and former Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, former Yale president Richard Levin and New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik.

Edelstein says the program is designed to teach the students that self-fashioning is "not about fashioning a persona that you want to dazzle others with. It's about hearing and calming all of the confused voices and urges we have inside of us."

Learning from W.E.B. Dubois

Zainab Taymuree was a freshman in Edelstein's "Learning for a Public Life" ESF seminar last year. Taymuree said the discussions of works by historian, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Dubois spurred her interest in African and African American studies. From Edelstein, her peers and the works they examined, she learned that the most compelling arguments develop from "a balance of subtle humility and subtle confidence."

Musila Munuve, a freshman from Nairobi, Kenya, who's interested in chemical engineering, is currently enrolled in the ESF seminar "Thinking Like a Philosopher." He said he feels that ESF does much more than direct the students' choices on careers or majors.

"So far in my class I've been forced to reflect on my expectations for Stanford, my beliefs, religious and otherwise, and my identity," Munuve said. "These questions and their answers I believe will help shape my views, my values and ultimately who I am."

Though the seminars are for incoming students, lessons of self-fashioning are not restricted to Stanford freshmen. Videos of each ESF lecture are available for viewing on the ESF website. Lectures are also open to the public, but seating is limited.

A fitness plan for the self

Education as Self-Fashioning grew out of the 2010 Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES). Some of the faculty, including Edelstein and Caroline Hoxby, realized the current curriculum did not give students enough chances to reflect on the reasons behind their educational choices.

Hoxby says a significant benefit of ESF is that the students can form substantial relationships with a faculty member from the first quarter. "They would thereafter have a go-to person for guidance and support – academic, career and extracurricular."

Another vital lesson of ESF is that the value of a liberal arts education is, as Eikenberry explained, not only "learning for utility" but "learning for its own sake," which in turn brings personal enrichment.

For example, this year Blair Hoxby is co-teaching the seminar on "The Active, Inquiring, Beautiful Life" with his wife, Caroline Hoxby. He wants his students to have beautiful lives – to see themselves as "works of art" that they must actively create.

Beyond helping the students learn more about themselves, Blair Hoxby says that ESF is about applying self-knowledge in a way that benefits society. The root meaning of the liberal arts, he explains, is education "that makes you worthy to be a free man or woman. And to be a free person in the Greek sense is to be a critical citizen." He adds, "Right at its very core, a liberal arts education is about assuming responsibility and making yourself worthy of exercising power rather than being self-indulgent."

Angela Becerra Vidergar received her PhD in comparative literature from Stanford in 2013 and writes about the humanities at Stanford.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,