Thinking Matters the next step in ‘cyclical’ humanities requirements

Aug. 16, 2012, 3:04 a.m.

As of this fall, the yearlong Introduction to the Humanities sequence will no longer be a requirement for freshmen. Instead, the Class of 2016 will choose from over 35 different quarter-long Thinking Matters courses.

Thinking Matters the next step in 'cyclical' humanities requirements
Thinking Matters is slated to replace IHum as the new freshman humanities requirement. (LORENA RINCON-CRUZ/The Stanford Daily)

A wide variety of classes will be offered, everything from The Science of “MythBusters,” which investigates the popular TV show, to How Do You Build a Nation? Inclusion and Exclusion in the Making of Modern Iran, a look into the nation’s rich culture and history. According to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Harry Elam Jr., the classes are not necessarily humanities courses, but they will teach humanities through “aesthetic inquiry, moral and ethical reasoning and creative expression” as a part of new breadth requirements voted on by the Faculty Senate.

“Thinking Matters courses ask students to ponder questions and issues that are vital to human existence, past and present,” Elam wrote in an email to The Daily. “They look at these questions from an intellectual perspective that illustrates the ways in which ‘thinking matters.’”

Every class, whether it’s Rules of War or The Water Course, will be based around asking questions and finding different ways to answer them.

Ellen Woods, the director of Thinking Matters, explains that the courses are meant to provide a transition to college-level learning. Thinking Matters is intended to help students develop analytical and inquiry skills while learning about a topic that interests them.

“Students are now asked to exercise more independently responsible choices in their education and are expected to build a solid liberal education that works for them,” Woods said.

Aside from allowing students to explore their interests, Thinking Matters is appealing to students because of its quarter-long length. The requirements for some majors are so large that it is difficult for students to have time for general education courses. According to history professor Jack Rakove, the faculty looked for a place to cut general education requirements and decided on IHUM  because it wasn’t popular among many students.

“Stanford is a great place to be humanist, but what makes Stanford Stanford is really its excellence in sciences, engineering, social sciences, stuff like that,” Rakove said.

With computer science as Stanford’s new most popular major, followed by biology and engineering, the yearlong humanities requirement was a lightning rod for campus criticism.

Elam, though, is quick to emphasize that the change in requirements is not entirely due to the so-called divide between “techies” and “fuzzies” at Stanford.

“All students come to Stanford having taken courses across this supposed divide,” Elam said. “We hope they will continue to do this at Stanford. In fact, we hope that techie students can discover their inner fuzziness and vice versa.”

Though Elam feels IHUM was a valuable course, he explains that it was meant to fade out eventually. Its predecessor, Cultures, Ideas and Values, was in place for about a decade, as was the Western Culture requirement before that.

“IHUM’s course of utility had simply come to an end,” Elam said. “Introductory courses tend to be cyclical at Stanford.”

In fact, complaints about Stanford’s humanities requirements have been around since the 1980s. A 1988 New York Times article notes that ‘‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western Culture’s got to go!” was a popular slogan at Stanford, where students were eager to see their freshman humanities requirement changed. Fast-forward eight years and negative columns were being written about the updated Cultures, Ideas, and Values requirement. In 1997, the Faculty Senate enthusiastically decided to require IHUM instead.

Now, even IHUM has run its course, and, according to Woods, Thinking Matters better achieves the University’s current goals.

“Each revision in the freshman required curriculum, which began almost 100 years ago at Stanford with Education for Citizenship, represents the dynamic social conditions of the time,” she said. “The faculty’s commitment is to a particular educational philosophy and approach to knowledge and the learning needs of the freshmen at the beginning of their undergraduate education.”

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