Freedom, the Market, and Curricular Reform: An Interview

THE SPHERE’S editor-in-chief sat down with Profs. Lanier Anderson, Sarah Church, Dan Edelstein, and Tom Kenny to discuss their groundbreaking proposals for curricular reform. From shrinking the major to expanding the core, they discuss the place of freedom, the market, and Montaigne in their revival of liberal education. For a summary of the reforms, we recommend taking a look at this interview in Stanford News. If you want to understand the ideas behind the reforms—a universal capstone requirement, a humanistic core for freshmen, a radical rehaul of the major—keep reading.


One of the threads that runs through your proposals, both the new core and the new major, is an effort to increase student freedom: both in terms of choice, by reducing unit load, and in terms of the freedom to explore the liberal arts—to help students feel less pressure from market forces. So how did the idea of freedom guide your proposals?

Dan Edelstein (DE): Obviously at the heart of the liberal education is this idea of freedom, but this is typically not the way that freedom is understood in a college context. It’s much more from this other tradition, which comes out of the German research university, of Lehrfreiheit, the freedom to study. And so if you talk to students about freedom in liberal education, they typically think, Oh, yeah. I’ll get to choose what I want to do.

But fundamentally, the freedom at the heart of a liberal education is not that at all. It is the preparation needed to live in a free society. And that’s the definition of liberal education that goes all the way back to ancient Athens and the Roman Republic.

Sarah Church (SC): I think for a lot of the students, they don’t feel free when they come here for whatever reason. They may have already decided themselves what their path is. They may feel pressure from families or economic circumstances to pursue certain paths. And these are valid concerns that students have, but one of the things we want to try to do with the new first-year core is show them that they can do both. That they have time. 

Lanier Anderson (LA): So maybe a third perspective on this, which I think is consistent with everything Sarah and Dan said, is that an important question for students is: freedom from what? And in some curricular reforms, a lot of the focus is on freedom from the university itself. It’s the Man who’s going to come down with a bunch of requirements… and stuff.

We don’t think that that’s the main problem of freedom that our students face. And that’s an analysis the two committees shared. This really picks up from something Sarah was saying. We think the main problem of freedom that students are facing is perceived constraint from instrumental pressures that are really coming from outside the university—that there is instability and uncertainty in the employment market, and people feel they need insurance against that instability. We wanted to liberate students (a little bit) from that. 

There’s a tension between what the market wants from students and students’ educations, or at least what students perceive it to be. And I think that expresses itself in a lack of humanistic exploration in freshman year.


You have a line about students’ recognizing the value of public goods, and understanding that public goods can be global. So it seems that your project isn’t just to change the university, but to change the world outside the university. How do you envision your program changing the world beyond Stanford?

LA: I’m going to turn that to my colleagues who worked on the first-year proposal. Because that’s an easy question.

DE: Yeah, thanks Lanier. 

Succinctly, the reason we have to make a mandatory core is that there are new market forces that encourage students to focus on topics that don’t serve the public good. And it would be foolish to pretend those forces don’t exist.

Therefore we also have to recognize that—just as in a democracy—we need to have somebody looking out for the public. The FEC is supposedly doing this for elections.

But we’re making the claim that as future graduates of Stanford, you have responsibilities, and some of those responsibilities are toward the public. That’s really what the second-quarter citizenship class is about. [The first-year core progresses through three distinct foci: liberal education in the fall, citizenship in the winter, and global perspectives in the spring.]

We were also very conscious of this other category of public goods, which today are global. That’s why there’s this sequencing from the citizenship class to the global class. It’s one thing to train students to think about how we should shepherd the public goods in our political communities. But the global community just presents all these other challenges. And, obviously, they’re existential in a way that some political challenges might not be. We could become an autocracy but not be wiped off the face of the earth—in that respect, climate change is actually more existential.

SC: My humanities colleagues would answer that question better than I could. So I’m not going to add anything at this point.

DE: We always joked that the core would need a fourth quarter for a physicist to bring this out from the globe to the universe.

LA: But our idea is that we are producing people. Stanford students are not the only ones who are going to lead the coming generation, but Stanford students have a lot of capacity. They’re very gifted students, and we need them to make a positive impact.

DE: “To promote the public welfare.” Though we’re not too worried about becoming irrelevant in terms of solving all the world’s problems.


When you were talking about “global public goods,” I was wondering if there’s an advocacy for global social democracy. Or if that’s—

LA: Some of the people who graduate from our university will go out and oppose global social democracy, and some of them will go out and fight for it. It’s part of what’s good about the education we’re aiming to provide: we give our best resources to both groups, so the quality of political contestation in our society goes up instead of down.

But let me go back to a point that one of your earlier questions raised. [We had briefly discussed the reduced unit count for majors before the interview began.] You may have said in passing that engineering majors need accreditation for professional purposes. One of the most important things I learned through this process was how much of the School of Engineering is… [Tom Kenny arrives.] Got here just in time.

SC: An engineer walks in the room.

Tom Kenny (TK): Did you call?

LA: He heard a rumor. Tom Kenny.

Much of the School of Engineering has moved away from official professional society accreditation. So maybe Tom should talk about that and provide context.

TK: A lot of the departments in the school have been trying to change the structure of their majors to reflect the way current students want to experience them. In a lot of cases, it’s meant eliminating depth in many areas, and letting students choose one track—to have depth and breadth. Then some electives at the end. That’s contrary to ABET. [ABET is engineering’s primary accreditation body.]

EE was the latest school, or the latest department, to step away from ABET, and the course-taking pattern has changed dramatically. Students are taking the same number of EE courses, but they’re choosing them for themselves, and enrollment in the major has gone up. So just a win-win all around. But it reflects an external accreditation body that has a set of rigid rules that don’t work at Stanford. Our students want to choose.

LA: We learned a lot from the Geophysics department in the School of Earth. Geophysics used to have this highly built-up major where you had to develop a lot of expertise in particular kinds of physics. Now they’ve reduced the unit load to 69 units.

TK: It was 130, wasn’t it?

LA: It was huge. And now they’ve had infinite growth in their major. They went from having zero students to six… But students are coming into the major, and it’s that kind of intellectual excitement that we hope reducing unit load is going to produce.


I guess you’re also introducing a new telos for undergraduate education: the capstone. [The majors team has proposed requiring every undergraduate to pursue a student-driven capstone (a thesis, a project) that would mark their major’s completion.] Beyond its role in undergraduate education, how do you imagine that shaping daily life in the undergraduate community?

LA: We’re going to find out how. 

I’ll just start this way. This was another area where we were inspired by the experience of our colleagues in the School of Engineering. ABET required everyone to have a capstone experience, and a lot of departments moved away from ABET, but they didn’t give up on the capstone. That was an incredibly memorable, meaningful educational experience for the students. We think that can have very powerful educational effects for individual students. And if students are all doing that together, then maybe it also has communal effects at the level of student culture. 

TK: Some of that will depend on how it’s organized by each department. A lot of engineering students started off doing prerequisites together, and then they fan out in the tracks. With the capstone, they come back together. And in a lot of cases the fun project is one in mechanical engineering that combines, say, robotics and heat transfer somehow. So the students from separate tracks who lost touch with each other for most of their junior year are now back together and working on something. They’re appreciating that what they learned and what their friend learned, which are different, are complementary. They fit together and help to solve the bigger problem. 

I think part of that argument also helps the faculty to understand why it’s not necessary for every student in a discipline to master every flavor of the discipline. If they can work together at the end, that’s okay. That’s what the future looks like around here.


Last question: book recommendations on education?

DE: I know that Lanier will say this one as well, but Du Bois’s On the Souls of Black Folk. It’s one of the greatest texts ever written on liberal education.

LA: And certainly the most eloquent and compelling argument for its importance in a distinctively American context. Maybe I’ll add Montaigne’s essays, which I find I go back to  over and over—and it never stops repaying. 

Du Bois brings the idea that his America, just like our America, had grave social and civilizational problems that had to be confronted and solved by patient, careful, cross-cultural negotiation among people coming to the table of American democracy. The problems of living together in such a diverse society are so deep that we need people of great wisdom and capacity to solve them effectively. And we need those people in every group of the society. That’s a very powerful and distinctively American argument for a full, wide, deep, broad education, as broad as possible because we don’t know in advance all the things that we’ll need to solve our social problems.

What Montaigne brings to the table is that you never stop. That with every new year, with every new decade, there are different things that your life experience brings to you that cause the same problems to show up in different lights. And he would go back to his chapters that were, at the time he published them, finished treatments of their respective subjects. When he wrote about a subject in his late forties, he thought one way about it; when he came back to it in his early sixties, he thought a different way. Almost every chapter has something like that. And I think that’s an incredibly valuable lesson we can learn from reading his book. If only I had more time, I would read it more often.

SC: I’m not going to cite a book. The thing that was influential to me when I started this process was the report that was written the last time there were major changes to education: the SUES report. What we’re proposing is actually not different in spirit to what was in that report. I think what we’re doing here is not upending the boat and throwing away the past. We’re trying an implementation that we think will be better able to deliver on the promise of the SUES report.

TK: It tells the story of education at Stanford from the beginning, all of the attempted reforms and some lessons learned from each of them. Read the whole thing. It has the original thoughts about what’s a university, what’s a major, what’s a department? How do these things interact with students and what are we hoping to achieve?

SC: When people read it and see what we’re proposing, it’s pretty clear how it maps onto the values and principles that were so well articulated in that report.

TK: There are times in our history where I think we appreciated that we had deep problems in our culture, in our society. Maybe a decade ago we thought that most of that was settled out. You know, there were a few loose ends, but we thought we had our culture aligned and well-behaved—life was good. The Great Recession put a lot of stress on our society and our culture, and it exposed some deep gaps and disagreements. And the last several years of political discourse have thrown gasoline on all of that.

I’m going to hang out with my dad this weekend. He and I… We’re going to play golf and watch some football. That’ll be our safe zone. Almost anything else we might talk about is going to be a problem. And that’s really sad.

He’s a good guy. I think I’m a good guy. We are mostly agreeable. We have good friends and so on. But there are no-fly zones in public discourse that we know we just… It’s the third rail in our relationship.

As we’re thinking about liberal education and preparing students to be citizens, to be ready to participate in the conversations we have to have, that’s what’s on our minds.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.

Chapman Caddell


Image of Green Library courtesy of Max Pixel.

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