Gadfly, Midwife, Electric Ray

Opinion by Anat Peled
Sept. 27, 2019, 12:38 a.m.

This university faces a “crisis in liberal education,” as a recent report on undergraduate education put it. Students are racing towards STEM departments at high speed, hopping over the hurdles of humanities and arts requirements on their way to the finish line. Freshmen, you will soon discover the “easy A” phenomenon, in which Stanford students choose courses to fulfill humanities WAYS requirements such as Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry (AII) and Creative Expression (CE) based on grading curves available on Carta. Many are not looking to be challenged or unsettled. They want a low work to high grade ratio. This is unfortunate since Stanford has some of the best humanities teachers in the world. The professors I have met here have challenged and changed the way I think about politics, culture and history. 

Great teachers force you to unlearn, to mess up the neatness of the different conceptual boxes through which we categorize and understand the world. Hannah Arendt once described the great teacher and ancient Greek philosopher Socrates using three words: gadfly, midwife and electric ray. Socrates was a gadfly because he knew how to arouse the citizens and wake them up. Without his guidance they would stay undisturbed. He was a midwife because according to the Greeks, the midwife had the function of deciding whether the child was fit to live or was a mere “windegg” of which the bearer must be cleansed. Like the midwife, Socrates purged people of their “opinions,” those unexamined prejudgments which prevent thinking. Finally, he was an electric ray because he paralyzed whomever he came into contact with.

All three metaphors imply a certain degree of pain for the student — a bite, a sting, a contraction. This stands in contrast to how the humanities are perceived at Stanford, as “easy” majors which are not useful for the job market. Stanford is well aware of this problem and is trying to fix it, as it explained in its report on the First-Year Shared Intellectual Experience and Exploration. “It would be a mistake,” argued the report, “to view student satisfaction as the only relevant criterion for judging the success of a general education program.” 

Education is not always supposed to be pleasant. At its best it will be uncomfortable and scary. It’s those moments, when you experience what you thought was firm ground shaking under your feet, that help you grow intellectually.

The gadflies will not be handed to you on a silver platter at Stanford. I was lucky enough to meet one, a retired historian, during my freshman year. I signed up for a directed reading with him (a one-on-one class with a professor which any undergraduate can arrange) winter quarter of my freshman year. He shocked me into reading Marx, Camus, Levi-Strauss, Freud, Koestler and Harari, and these writers have become foundational to my thinking. I remember the earth-shaking experience of reading Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and realizing that the things that I considered firm truths such as religion, borders and the market were fictions that we share. I remember the discomfort after watching the movie Rashomon (1950) and understanding that we inhabit different truth worlds which are not compatible with each other. It sounds silly. But I never thought about these things before. 

Don’t know where to start? Here are four classes with great professors from four different disciplines.

HISTORY 237D: The French Revolution and the Birth of Modern Politics (Keith Baker) – Or anything else that Professor Baker is teaching. He will change how you think about the connection between politics, ideas and history.

POLISCI 22SC: The Face of Battle (Scott Sagan and Allen Weiner) – I am biased here since I took the class and was TA as well. But this is an amazing opportunity to develop empathy for both sides fighting in a war. Did I ever think that I would give a speech as Robert E. Lee on the second day of Gettysburg—at the battlefield itself—defending my decision to go forward with my attack after the slaughter of the first day? No. But there’s Stanford for you.

ANTHRO 1: Introduction to Cultural and Social Anthropology (Jim Ferguson) – Although there is a no-question-during-class policy, Professor Ferguson’s lectures and the readings are mind-blowing. They will make you think about culture and the way it frames language, power and politics. 

MUSIC 17N: The Operas of Mozart (Karol Berger)– No music background required. I am not a music person and had never been very into operas. But Professor Berger’s freshman seminar made me look at Mozart’s operas as part of the intellectual, social and political product of its times. Can opera start revolution? In some cases, yes

There are so many more! Ask your advisors, RAs and TAs. Keep a list and see what names keep popping up. Shop classes! Take it from a proud history major — do not be deceived by articles like the one in New York Magazine which presented Stanford as a networking and fundraising school. Yes, this is a tech-dominated campus. But as alums Alina Utrata and Ibrahim Bharmal pointed out, Stanford is what you make of it. And while you are probably beginning to stress about major requirements, this column is a reminder to seek out the amazing teachers this university has to offer. Don’t be intimidated by them. Go to their office hours. You may just be lucky enough to experience a bite, a sting, a contraction.

Contact Anat Peled at anatpel ‘at’

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