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Exploring concepts of citizenship

Frosh tackled some big questions about the ideals of citizenship and democracy for their second course in COLLEGE, Stanford’s newly restructured undergraduate requirement program.

Throughout winter quarter, Stanford’s first-year students have convened twice a week in small seminar sections to discuss and debate challenges facing citizenship today, tackling big questions like how citizenship works in a divided society and what citizenship means when so many threats are global.

Lloyd Minor teaching in seminar

Lloyd Minor, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the School of Medicine, is one of several Stanford leaders teaching COLLEGE courses. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Their lively discussions are part of Citizenship in the 21st Century, the second course in Stanford’s newly restructured undergraduate requirement, Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE) – a program designed to provide students a shared intellectual experience and an opportunity to deepen their critical and ethical thinking skills about society and the world. In their Citizenship in the 21st Century class, students have examined different concepts of citizenship and how citizens come together in democracies to exchange ideas and make decisions.

On one recent Wednesday, 33 of the 75 sections – led by a mix of faculty and postdoctoral teaching fellows from across the university – gathered across campus.

One of those seminars was co-taught by Stanford Law School Professor Pamela Karlan and Peggy Xu, a third-year law student. As Karlan and Xu entered the first floor of a building off the Main Quad, another COLLEGE section – led by Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor in French in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) and one of the faculty directors of the COLLEGE program – was leaving.

The topic students were discussing that week was the legal dimensions of citizenship, particularly immigration, naturalization, and taking on new forms of citizenship.

Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor in Public Interest Law and co-director of the law school’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, began class by giving a brief overview of the history of immigration policy in the U.S. She talked about how throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, laws were put in place that racialized citizenship – for example, the 1857 Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford that held that African Americans could not be citizens of the United States and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that restricted immigrants from China.

Pamela Karlan teaching in seminar

Pamela Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor in Public Interest Law and co-director of the law school’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, co-taught Citizenship in the 21st Century. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Karlan then segued into discussing current legal processes to U.S. citizenship.

For class that day, students looked at the questions and answers on the civics exam that immigrants must pass to become a U.S. citizen.

Karlan opened discussion by asking the class what they thought about the test, which includes some 100 questions about U.S. history and government such as “What is the ‘rule of law’?” and “What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?”

One student shared how she felt a disconnect between the test material and her lived experience as an American. She said: “It’s interesting that this is a test to become a citizen, but when we think about what is a citizen, is it about being able to recall these facts?”

Another student said that some of the material on the test is information she learned in elementary school and is easily forgotten.

The class went on to have a lively discussion about the test’s purpose and civics curricula in the U.S. more broadly, as well as the tensions that arise in distilling the country’s complex and difficult history. What to include and exclude on a history curriculum – which, as Karlan pointed out, is determined by states or local school boards, not the federal government – is a contentious topic and one being hotly debated nationwide today. In summarizing the points students were making, Karlan said that what is taught and tested is a sign of what is valued.

What the U.S. naturalization test tries to accomplish came up a few hours later in a seminar co-taught by Lloyd Minor, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the School of Medicine, and Sara Mrsny, the associate director of COLLEGE.

In a conference room in the Li Ka Shing Learning and Knowledge Center, Minor asked the class what body of knowledge would show an immigrant in the U.S. how the country works. One student wondered how that could be possible in a country as diverse as ours. It becomes an issue of power, she said, prodding the argument further and asking her classmates: “Who defines the body of knowledge? Who is the body of knowledge serving? Whose interests is it serving? Is it actually serving citizens’ interests or is it serving the government’s interests?”

Another student optimistically suggested that instead of testing historic facts, what about testing concepts and characteristics that would make for an ideal citizen, such as being inclusive and tolerant. But those values might be difficult to determine, and also subjective, he realized. A classmate then said that if inclusivity is something of value, perhaps having a simple test – for all its flaws – might be the more inclusive option.

Being curious together

One of the goals of the COLLEGE program is to encourage students to be curious together and, as a group, examine topics that can sometimes be sensitive and controversial in a constructive and meaningful way.

“I think it’s really important to get people to the point where they can question ideas without always questioning motives,” said Jay Hamilton, the Hearst Professor of Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences and chair of the COLLEGE governing board. “The citizenship class prepares Stanford students to play significant roles in local, national, and global affairs by challenging them to think hard about how democracies should and do operate.”

Students taking Citizenship in the 21st Century also explored free speech in divided societies; the intersection of citizenship with race, social class, and economic inequality; the threat of authoritarianism; and civil disobedience, among other topics. Through a supportive environment, students develop the skills to keep an open-mind to talk about these issues in constructive ways.

“I think the brilliance of this is that it’s taught in seminars, and not in a giant lecture class,” explained Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, who has been teaching in the COLLEGE program. “Students get time with a professor and with each other to explore controversial topics, building mutual understanding and trust even in the face of disagreement.”

That trust became evident when Minor’s class discussed the topic of immigration and naturalization and students opened up to each other, sharing deeply personal details about their own families experiences studying and taking the U.S. naturalization test.

“One of my earliest memories was when my mom was naturalized,” one student recalled. “I have these very vivid memories of sitting in the car and quizzing her on the way back and forth to school.”

Other students shared similar memories of helping their parents and even grandparents study for the exam. The exam’s focus on U.S. history and the fact that it is administered in English was incredibly stressful to some of the family members, who would often agonize over whether they were remembering or repeating the information they were being tested on correctly.

Another student said that luckily her mother had her to help coach her. As she shared the rest of her family’s immigration story, she argued that having people to help navigate the complex process of naturalization is a privilege – one that is not available to everyone. If an immigrant does not have access to those kinds of resources, they get penalized for it, she lamented to her classmates.

Students in a COLLEGE seminar.

One of the unique aspects of the COLLEGE experience is that it is taught in small seminars, not large lecture halls. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“It’s an honor to take part in the COLLEGE program and get to hear such thoughtful and poignant perspectives from students,” said Minor. “It’s important to me to seek out opportunities like this to continue teaching, especially because students always teach me so much in return.”

Minor and Satz are among several campus leaders teaching a COLLEGE class this year. Other faculty members include Keith Winstein and Mary Wootters in computer science and Steven Press and Ali Yaycıoğlu in history.

In addition to a variety of discussion topics related to citizenship, readings for the course have also been wide-ranging, spanning classic philosophers to contemporary authors. Students read canonical texts such as Plato’s Crito, selections from Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, and James Madison’s “Federalist No. 10,” but they also read a diverse range of perspectives from current scholars as well, such as works by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Martha Nussbaum, and Steven Calabresi.

Fostering discussion outside of class

In addition to Citizenship in the 21st Century in winter quarter and Why College? Your Education and the Good Life in the fall, COLLEGE also provides students with further opportunities to extend their class discussions in informal settings, such as dining halls and residences.

Plenary events also form part of the program.

For students taking Citizenship in the 21st Century, there was a panel discussion titled “Is Democratic Citizenship in Crisis?” featuring Karlan; Condoleezza Rice, who served as the 66th Secretary of State of the United States between January 2005 and January 2009 and is now the Tad and Dianne Taube Director of the Hoover Institution; and Rutgers University president and Stanford alum Jonathan Holloway, ’89.

The COLLEGE program also collaborated with the Department of Theater and Performance Studies to stage a production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the bard’s notable tragedy about the murder of the Roman emperor. The play, reimagined in a contemporary setting with a diverse and multicultural cast, brought important ethical questions to bear about how citizens in a democracy can resist and respond to the threat of authoritarianism.

In spring quarter, COLLEGE students will take a Global Perspectives-themed course where they will reflect on their own actions in a global context.

The most recent modifications to the undergraduate requirement came after an extensive, formal review period they led during the university’s long-range planning process. Edelstein, along with Sarah Church, the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, chaired the efforts to re-energize Stanford’s commitment to liberal education. In May 2020, the Faculty Senate approved a four-year pilot phase of the COLLEGE program.

This story is part of an ongoing, in-depth series by Stanford Report exploring the COLLEGE program.

Stanford faculty are invited to teach in COLLEGE and can find out more on the COLLEGE website.