Educating Active Citizens

First-year students begin their Stanford careers with a focus on civic responsibility.

September 2022

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Portrait of Marc Tessier-Lavigne

Photo: Toni Bird

This academic year, first-year students will kick off their Stanford experience with two quarters of a course requirement called Civic, Liberal, and Global Education—or COLLEGE. Born out of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision, COLLEGE aims to provide all students with a shared intellectual foundation focused on civic responsibility and a common baseline from which to approach and debate difficult issues.

The program, now in its second year, gives students a forum to explore concepts of active citizenship, the purpose of a broad-based education, and how to understand current challenges within a global context. Students choose two out of three classes: Why College? Your Education and the Good Life; Citizenship in the 21st Century; and Global Perspectives. Each course provides students with opportunities to be exposed to new points of view, to experiment with ideas, and to reflect on their own preconceptions within a rigorous academic context. 

COLLEGE classes also offer students the tools to engage with one another productively, even over contentious topics. In a world that faces many challenges, we need young adults who are able to work with one another across differences to find solutions. Our goal is to help them learn how to disagree—without being disagreeable. This is an important foundational skill not only for their years at Stanford but also for their lives ahead. 

We heard very positive feedback from last year’s students about their experiences in COLLEGE. One student described Citizenship in the 21st Century as “timely and applicable as we navigate the mass headlines and articles that trouble our generation. The class allows you the opportunity to question how you interact in the communities you are a part of . . . as you identify ways in which you can be a better citizen.” Another said the Why College? course was a “transformative experience” that gave “so many new perspectives on not only the purpose of a liberal education . . . but how to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.”

Universities have an important role to play not only in educating students for personal success, but in offering them the skills and knowledge they need to promote the public welfare and act for the good of the world.

As the program expands to two quarters this year—with the eventual goal of three quarters—organizers are working with campus partners to ensure that the values of citizenship and the public good are embedded throughout the Stanford experience. A new group of COLLEGE faculty fellows is working closely with Residential Education staff and frosh dorms to organize events that relate to COLLEGE material this fall and beyond. COLLEGE also dovetails with opportunities through Cardinal Service, which supports students in using their knowledge and skills to address real-world problems through hands-on service work in our local community and in communities around the world.

COLLEGE is also working with the New Student Orientation team to bring back the “First Lecture on Liberal Education,” an opening address to the entire first-year class that helps set the stage for the academic year. This year’s lecture will be delivered by Ge Wang, an associate professor of music. Students enrolled in Citizenship in the 21st Century during winter quarter will attend a plenary session titled “Is Democracy in Crisis?” featuring Stanford scholars Francis Fukuyama, Pamela Karlan, and Condoleezza Rice, and the program is partnering with the department of theater and performance studies to stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Memorial Auditorium. 

Universities have an important role to play not only in educating students for personal success, but in offering them the skills and knowledge they need to promote the public welfare and act for the good of the world. We want students in every field to leave Stanford with an understanding of how their actions relate to the success of their communities. These values will serve them in their own futures—and serve our nation and world for the long term. 

Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.

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