This quarter, first-year students had the opportunity to participate in a new course, “Citizenship in the 21st Century,” which is being piloted as part of a proposed new core curriculum for first-year students.

Dan Edelstein (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“I think teaching citizenship at Stanford is a responsibility that we have to our students and to the world,” said Dan Edelstein, director of Stanford Introductory Studies and William H. Bonsall Professor in French in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

With first-year students joining the class from locations around the world due to COVID-19, the course intentionally begins with something that applies to all, regardless of nationality: Stanford’s Fundamental Standard. The course uses the standard to examine what it means to be a responsible member of the university community.

“Our students immediately recognize the common grammar and ideas we’re talking about and apply them to other communities they’re part of, whether those are geographic, like hometowns, or based on religion, sexuality, race or ethnicity,” Edelstein said.

The notion of citizenship is part of Stanford’s history dating back to the Founding Grant. Leland Sr. and Jane Stanford intended the university to honor their son Leland Jr.’s memory “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.”

“Our mission of educating students who understand both the meaning and practice of citizenship is as important now as it was at the university’s founding,” said Debra Satz, Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society. “We want to help our students challenge, deepen and reflect on their own understanding of what it means to be a good citizen,” said Satz who is an instructor in the course.

Moving from local to broader ideas of citizenship, the course utilizes works from a variety of perspectives including those by Langston Hughes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and contemporary writers and thinkers such as Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. The course also includes a discussion of both the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

“I was interested in the course because the topic seemed so timely – so many of the roles and responsibilities of democratic citizens are currently being challenged and debated,” said student Nora Ming-Min Yang, ’24. “I wanted to learn about how I can better understand my own duties and privileges as a citizen. This class has really opened my eyes to the nuances of citizenship at the local, national, and even global scale and given me skills to critically examine the interplay between individual and group interests.”

Ethical and philosophical discussions as well as case studies bring both historical and modern considerations to the fore and connect abstract ideas to the real world. For instance, students might consider what it means for a big tech company to design software for a country that does not have the same values as the U.S. When the issue of whether Facebook and Twitter should accept or ban political ads was discussed, the writings of John Stuart Mill on free speech were juxtaposed with Mark Zuckerberg’s position, stated in a speech at Georgetown University.

For Emilee Chapman, assistant professor of political science and an instructor in the course, the possibilities of what people working together can accomplish are immense. “But as the communities we try to build become larger and more diverse, and as the shared goals we set for ourselves become loftier, the challenges of citizenship also become greater,” she said. “So if we hope to take advantage of the possibilities that a more connected world can offer us, we will need thoughtful citizens.”

Virtual classes due to the pandemic provided an opportunity to think carefully about how communities come together and how trust is built between people who have never met each other. At the suggestion of Wendy Salkin, assistant professor of philosophy and an instructor in the course, each section designed its own social contract, including expectations of students for each other and of professors, shared values, and how infractions would be adjudicated.

New approach

At Stanford, following the crisis of World War I, the university began a “Problems of Citizenship” course. That was replaced in the 1930s with a Western Civilization requirement. Since then, first-year requirements have been revamped to reflect changing social norms and student populations.

Now, the new Civic, Liberal and Global Education (COLLEGE) core curriculum, part of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision, seeks to celebrate the diversity of students and move away from Euro-centric modes of instruction, while incorporating many of the important political and ethical aspects of citizenship that have been covered by earlier courses.

“We’re trying to do that by moving away from a chronological order,” Edelstein said. “When you’re not trying to tell this big story from Pericles’ funeral oration to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, you can abandon things that were problematic about the Western Civ approach and think about citizenship in a much more diverse and inclusive way.”

The first quarter of the newly proposed core last fall included “Why College?,” a course that explored the value and role of a liberal arts education. The final quarter in the spring will focus on “Global Perspectives,” including examinations of issues that are global in scope like climate change and immigration.

Connecting students

Beginning in the 2021–22 academic year, first-year students will be required to take one quarter of the new COLLEGE core and in 2022–23 that will increase to two quarters. The full implementation period for the new core curriculum goes until 2025–26, at which time it will be decided if students will be required to take all three quarters of the core.

Another goal of the new core is to increase opportunities for shared conversations in dorms and dining halls among first-year students, who will be exposed to the same concepts and works.

The entire first-year COLLEGE program is designed so that faculty from a variety of disciplines, including engineers and scientists, can teach in it. While fall and winter courses will have many readings in common, there also are opportunities for faculty to introduce material from their specific areas of study.

Media Contacts

Joy Leighton, School of Humanities and Sciences: