This past year, over a thousand Stanford first-year students took Citizenship in the 21st Century, the second course in Stanford’s newly restructured undergraduate requirement, Civic, Liberal, and Global Education (COLLEGE).

Students gather for a citizenship lecture in 1924.

Students gather for a citizenship lecture in 1924. (Image credit: Stanford Historical Photograph Collection, Stanford Libraries)

While the course may be new, teaching citizenship as part of a Stanford student’s general education is not. In fact, its history can be traced back to 1923, when the university implemented a set of radical transformations to its undergraduate curriculum.

One of those changes was the introduction of Problems of Citizenship, a year-long civics education course that all first-year Stanford students were required to take.

The course came at a unique moment in both American and world history. World War I, a global conflict that ended with empires collapsing and new nation-states emerging, had recently concluded. In Europe and elsewhere, fascism was on the rise.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., new voters were entering the electorate: Problems of Citizenship was first proposed to the Academic Council in 1920, the same year the 19th Amendment – which granted women the right to vote – was ratified. In addition, many of the students who entered college during this period were born to people who immigrated to the United States during the era of mass migration, prompting questions of what it meant to be American for this new multicultural generation.

“One hundred years ago, people at Stanford were looking at how the world was after the global events that had just happened and were trying to find a way, as a community of learning, to prepare students to navigate that world,” said Dustin Schroeder, the COLLEGE program’s faculty director on civic education and an associate professor of electrical engineering in the School of Engineering and of geophysics in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Expression of aims for the Course in Citizenship, 1923

Problems of Citizenship was the first required course for Stanford frosh designed to examine the “fundamental political, social, and economic problems of the American people.” Click on image to enlarge. (Image credit: Stanford Libraries)

Each week, the entire frosh class – then, some 600 students – gathered to hear lectures, 90 in total, from faculty across Stanford on a range of topics like “Citizenship in a Democratic World,” “The Citizen and the Vote,” and “Internationalism.” Students assembled in smaller groups to discuss readings related to that week’s lecture.

Learning skills for critical thinking and civil discourse was a course objective as well – a value that has remained constant in the evolution of Stanford’s undergraduate requirement. In the introductory lecture, Edgar E. Robinson, a history professor and faculty director of the Problems of Citizenship course, said: “[D]emocracy asks that the doors of discussion be kept open.”[1]

Some 100 years later, Stanford students returned to Robinson’s words again, reading a piece he wrote about the course for the Stanford Illustrated Review, a publication the Stanford Alumni Association issued from 1917 to 1940. Robinson articulates some of this early pedagogical history and the goals of educating Stanford students about their civic responsibilities.

Preparing future leaders

In addition to preparing students as voters and global citizens, Stanford administrations also saw value in readying them as role models and future leaders – the university was, after all, founded by a man who served as governor of California and later, a U.S. state senator.

“Following the war, there was a general sense, culturally, that the university needed to do more to provide a foundation for students that would produce well-rounded individuals who could go on to become national leaders and serve the country,” explained Emily J. Levine, an associate professor of education and the faculty director of Why College? Your Education and the Good Life, COLLEGE’s fall quarter course.

Even in the institution’s early years, Stanford was connected to the country’s politics through its growing alumni base. Most notably was Herbert Hoover, a member of Stanford’s inaugural class, who served as director of the U.S. Food Administration and the secretary of commerce before eventually becoming the 31st president of the United States in 1929.

Finding common ground

Also important for these students who entered adulthood in the aftermath of World War I was having a shared sense of purpose, said Debra Satz, the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, who has also been teaching in the COLLEGE program.

“In moments of social crisis, individuals need to pull together as a community and rise to address the problems,” said Satz. Taking a class together on citizenship was a way to “determine where there is consensus and where there are disagreements that need to be adjudicated,” Satz added.

Today, some elements of the original course, like a shared curriculum, are the same. In the winter and spring quarters, students met in small groups, intimate spaces that allow for in-depth conversations over a sustained period of time.

Moreover, students learn how to communicate across differences. For Schroeder, having a class that brings students together – and practicing the skills to discuss conflicting viewpoints respectfully – feels particularly salient at a time when

“In our current moment of polarization, people’s posture when other people disagree with them is one of condemnation, judgment, and attacking as opposed to understanding, listening, and reasoning, and this really limits your ability to learn from each other,” Schroeder said. “The COLLEGE course is a way to practice critical reasoning with one other in a civil, thoughtful, and generous way.”

The COLLEGE program is one of several evolutions of the Stanford undergraduate requirement. Even Robinson remarked, “College education is always in a process of transformation.”[2]

In 1935, the citizenship class was replaced by “Western Civilization,” which was taught until 1969. From 1980 to 2012, Stanford rolled out other iterations of the undergraduate requirement, including “Western Culture” from 1980 to 1988; “Cultures, Ideas, and Values” from 1989 to 1995; and “Introduction to the Humanities” from 1995 until 2012, which was when “Thinking Matters” was introduced. In May 2020, the faculty senate approved a four-year pilot phase of the COLLEGE program.

[1] The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (Stanford University Press, 1993) by W.B. Carnochan, Appendix, page 140

[2] The Battleground of the Curriculum, Appendix, page 135