Stanford’s Engaging Diversity requirement needs to be strengthened

Opinion by Austin Block
Sept. 16, 2014, 8:37 p.m.

Once the Class of 2016 graduates, Stanford’s transition to Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing general education requirements will be complete. This change is welcome, because the old system badly needed fixing: The Disciplinary Breadth obligation was superficial and unsatisfying, and the Education for Citizenship (EC) requirement was well-meaning but flawed (more on this later). Unfortunately, however, the new regime is only somewhat better, for one reason: A Stanford student can still earn a diploma without engaging meaningfully with the ways in which race, class, gender and sexual orientation shape the modern world.

Education for Citizenship attempted to support the study of race, class, gender and sexuality by requiring students to take classes in two of four areas: ethical reasoning, American culture, the global community and gender studies. However, as the 2012 Study of Undergraduate Education at Stanford (SUES) humorously acknowledged, the requirement described “four broad areas as essential to responsible citizenship” and then “[asked] students to choose from only two of these areas.”

If students chose certain combinations of classes, they might never study race, class, gender and sexual orientation. To be fair, many pairs of classes address at least one of these ideas. For example, a student could satisfy the EC requirements by taking Economy and Economics of Ancient Greece (global community) and Justice (ethical reasoning), both of which probably touch on issues of class.

However, one of the key insights of critical race theory is that privilege and disadvantage are intersectional. It’s hard to understand race without studying the ways in which it interacts with class and gender. From this perspective, studying just class or just race (or even taking just African-American studies but not Asian-American studies) isn’t enough to meet the demands of a liberal arts education, which requires us to think across disciplines.

Unfortunately, Ways of Thinking/Ways of Doing does little to fix this problem. Although the engaging diversity (ED) requirement pushes students toward studies in race, class, gender and sexuality, it is only a one-class requirement. It takes more than one class to really wrap one’s head around ideas like privilege and intersectionality. Moreover, there are still ways to get around this requirement without directly addressing these ideas. For example, while I’m sure it’s a great and valuable class, I’m skeptical that “Peruvian Archaeology,” which satisfies the ED requirement, would help students think rigorously about why the Michael Brown case has the country in an uproar or how incessant comments about female politicians’ appearance reify gender prejudices.

Although this problem is important, the solution isn’t particularly difficult. Create a more rigorous screening process for deciding which classes satisfy the ED requirement, and raise the number of required ED courses from one to two. Screening out classes like “Peruvian Archaeology” will force students into other classes that are more applicable to a 21st-century discussion on race, gender and class, and adding to the requirement will ensure that students study these ideas from at least two angles.

Admittedly, the schedules of engineers and pre-meds are already tight. However, thanks to the substitution of Thinking Matters (one quarter) for IHUM (three quarters), the new requirements are less burdensome than the previous ones. This should be a reasonable accommodation.

In addition to receiving pushback from pre-meds and engineers, a stronger race, gender and class studies requirement might also be viewed as overly paternalistic. However, it is no more paternalistic than any other general education requirement. To restrict students’ class choices in any way is to acknowledge that there are certain decisions that students should not make for themselves. Therefore, unless one rejects general education in its entirety, any criticism of a requirement must explain why its content is not important enough to be included in our general education system.

In my view, it is pretty easy to argue why race, gender and class studies ought to be included, for two reasons. First, responsible study of the humanities requires students to engage with a variety of contributors to human artistic, cultural, literary and philosophical achievement. Unfortunately, however, many humanities classes either present white, straight, cisgender, male, Eurocentric histories and perspectives as the invisible norm or omit other perspectives entirely. Therefore, if students wish to gain an honest and well-rounded liberal arts education, one in which multiple perspectives are thoughtfully and equitably explored, their education should include history, literature and philosophy classes offered through feminist, gender and sexuality studies, African and African-American studies, comparative studies in race and ethnicity and other departments that emphasize the study of race, class and gender.

In addition to helping students attain a more honest humanities education, a strengthened ED requirement would also help students work toward another important goal of a liberal arts education: to prepare students to make positive contributions to the world they inhabit. Sadly, we live in a society where privileges and burdens are unevenly distributed, often along lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Thus, if we are to act responsibly in this world (i.e. if we are to act in such a way as to break down, rather than reinforce, this unfair distribution of advantages), then we need to be able to understand, critique and push back against the status quo. All it takes is a look at Google’s diversity numbers or at the underrepresentation of women in high-level surgery to highlight the relevance of this understudied field, whether you’re a political scientist, engineer or doctor.


Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’

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