Editorial: The value of a liberal education

Opinion by Editorial Board
Oct. 31, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

Students’ anticipation of the opening of winter quarter enrollment this past weekend undoubtedly prompted some students to express frustration over Stanford’s General Education Requirements (GERs). The non-Structured Liberal Education (SLE) students are required to take three IHUM courses, two PWR classes and classes that cover five Disciplinary Breadth areas (Humanities, Social Sciences, Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Applied Sciences and Engineering) and two of four Education for Citizenship requirements. In practice, this amounts to around eight to 10 courses outside of one’s major (the Foreign Language requirement, not technically a GER, requires up to three additional classes).

Although the GERs fall under criticism, the theory underlying their existence — that values a liberal education, or an education involving study in all the major subfields — is sound. Although a liberal education might once have been valued for the purpose of educating the future elite in upper-class social norms, such as an understanding of Greek, in the 21st Century a more practical justification is in order. There are at least two such justifications. One is that, in exposing all students to a wide range of fields, requiring a liberal education can help students find new intellectual passions. Given that many Stanford students ultimately major in something completely different from what they originally intended, this benefit cannot be ignored. However, we must also justify the liberal education for those students who are completely certain of their major and future career. A common question asked by critiques of a liberal education goes something like this: why should an English major, dead set on writing for a living, need to take classes in math, science and engineering?

But the fact that college education is becoming increasingly specialized further warrants liberal education requirements. We are entering a workforce and society where having knowledge in just one field will not suffice. The National Academy of Engineering, for instance, recognizes the importance of a liberal education. In its 2004 report on the “Engineer of 2020,” the NAE stated that “learning disciplinary technical subjects to the exclusion of a selection of humanities, economics, political science, language and/or interdisciplinary technical subjects is not in the best interest of producing engineers able to communicate with the public, able to engage in a global engineering marketplace, or trained to be lifelong learners.” And in an increasingly technology-dependent world, it is important that those majoring in the humanities and social sciences have college-level exposure to math, science and engineering if their major does not already require it.

Yet despite the fantastic class offerings across many disciplines at Stanford, the Study on Undergraduate Education at Stanford found that students often fall under the misguided impression that their major represents the entirety of their relevant college education. High unit counts in certain majors are likely somewhat responsible for this trend, although also at play is the fact that some students may not take GERs seriously. In its extreme form, some students see little to no value in being required to take classes outside their primary discipline. This is a particularly shortsighted belief; the concept of a liberal education, for instance, is widely endorsed among Stanford faculty and in the professional world.

These students, however, are not entirely to blame for negative perspectives on the GER system; the current requirements have some serious flaws. Though well intentioned, the IHUM requirement engrains many freshmen with a belief that future GERs are to be resented, not welcomed. Furthermore, for those who want an easy way out of the requirements, CourseRank makes it simple to find the approximately 7 percent of Disciplinary Breadth classes that reportedly have fewer than five hours of work per week. Although it is impossible to expect all students to challenge themselves in fulfilling GERs, a University that values its requirements should not aid students who want to shirk them. Accordingly, classes that fulfill GER requirements should have to pass a certain rigor. They should also have to be relevant to Stanford’s mission in providing a practical liberal education. As it stands, the application of which classes fulfill the breadth requirement and which do not is incoherent. It is hard to understand why History 257C (LGBT History in the United States) cannot fulfill one of the five breadth GERs while Music 21 (Elements of Music I) can fulfill the Humanities requirement. And, if the University wants it students to appreciate the value of its requirements, professors in GER-fulfilling classes should be required to explain why their class is relevant to non-majors.

These are just some of the first steps the University needs to take if it wants every student to view the GERs as a fundamental piece of his or her Stanford education. However, some of the onus is on students as well. It is easy to complain about GERs given high workloads, but that fact should not prevent us from embracing the notion of a liberal education. It is easy to complain about being forced to take classes outside a field of interest, but let us remember that sometimes requirements are there for our own benefit. Yes, there are legitimate problems with the GER system. But let us not allow the University to confuse these criticisms with those of students who simply do not value a liberal education.

The Stanford Daily Editorial Board comprises Opinions Editors, Columnists, and at least one member of the Stanford Community. The Board's views are reached through research, debate and individual expertise. The Board does not represent the views of the newsroom nor The Stanford Daily as a whole. Current voting members include Chair Nadia Jo '24, Joyce Chen '25, YuQing Jian '25, Jackson Kinsella '27, Alondra Martinez '26 and Sebastian Strawser '26.

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