Freshmen discuss the value of liberal education in new ESF program

Oct. 16, 2012, 11:38 p.m.

“Do you think a liberal education makes you happier?”

This might not be a typical question in many Stanford classrooms, but it is in the new Education as Self-Fashioning (ESF) seminar, “The Active, Inquiring, Beautiful Mind,” led by economics professor Caroline Hoxby.

The course is one of five interconnected seminars taught under the ESF program, launched this fall quarter for incoming freshmen. More than 200 freshmen ranked ESF as their first choice among courses that fulfilled the Thinking Matters requirement, making it one of the most popular options. Each seminar examines the purpose of liberal education, what it means to be educated and how students can make the most of their time at Stanford.

According to Hoxby, the idea of ESF was born from last year’s breadth committee meetings for the Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) report, in which faculty members expressed their desire to offer a course that would improve the freshman experience.

“It really grew out of people wondering what would be an ideal course if you were a first quarter freshman and you wanted to spend your Stanford career doing the things that would benefit you the most,” she said.

Hoxby’s seminar – which she teaches with her husband and Stanford English professor Blair Hoxby – focuses on the idea of the “self-made man.” The course addresses how people throughout history, such as Thomas Jefferson and Emperor Hadrian, viewed the role of education and used education to better themselves.

Other ESF courses examine the role of education, such as “Rigorous and Precise Thinking” led by mathematics professor Ravi Vakil and “In Pursuit of Knowledge, Justice and Truth” led by classics professor Richard Saller.

Each class within the ESF program consists of a seminar, a lecture series and section. Most seminars have two sections with approximately 15 students each, and professors meet with each section at least once a week. Students also receive guidance from writing instructors who hold group and individual meetings to help students learn how to think and write clearly.

Vakil said that the writing aspect of the course is “essential,” as it enables students to communicate their thoughts to others.

“Making a clear argument is important not just when you’ve had your thought but also to clarify your thinking,” Vakil said, noting that it is particularly important in his course, as proof writing is “central to mathematics.”

Some freshmen said that they were attracted to ESF because it fulfills both the Thinking Matters and PWR requirements.

“I chose ESF because it combined two of the requirements,” said Caroline Frost ’16. “I actually didn’t realize it was completely about why a liberal education is a good thing.”

Frost said that although the seminar is “definitely nothing like what [she] expected,” she feels it is “expanding [her] horizons and getting out of [her] comfort zone.”

Because the ESF program focuses on a liberal education and counts for a significant number of units, students often compare it to the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program. However, ESF lacks the residential aspect of SLE and demands a lesser time commitment.

“They say that ESF is baby SLE,” Christine Yeh ’16 said, who is taking Saller’s ESF seminar. “I feel that I get all the benefits of SLE without having to put in all of my time.”

While SLE is fixed at approximately 90 students per year, ESF has 150 students this year and Hoxby said the program might grow to accommodate more students.

According to Hoxby, a larger course was the original goal but the program was kept small so professors could see if there were any “moving parts” that would make it difficult to expand.

ESF sections are limited to students in the course, but all freshmen are invited to attend the lecture series, which is required for students in the program. The series brings visiting lecturers to Stanford to “illustrate things that we don’t think are illustrated by any of our courses,” Hoxby said.

The next lecture will be held on Nov. 2 from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. in Hewlett 201. Alexander Nehamas, philosophy and comparative literature professor at Princeton, will deliver a lecture titled “I Would Rather Fashion My Mind Than Furnish It.”

According to associate professor of philosophy Lanier Anderson, who teaches an ESF seminar, the lectures will “contribute to an ongoing conversation on campus about what our educational goals are and should be.”

He noted that ESF students will be at the center of this conversation and hopes that they will encourage their friends to attend the lectures, a hope echoed by Hoxby.

“If I were a freshman, I would love to go to lunch with my friends afterward and say ‘Wasn’t that cool?’ or ‘Wasn’t that interesting?’” Hoxby said. “Everyone is really welcome.”

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