Embracing the Need to 'Learn and Relearn'

Glenn Matsumura

When Stanford's faculty began to think strategically in the early 1990s about the direction of undergraduate education at a research university in the 21st century, the terrain was largely unmapped. Some visionaries, however, had been thinking in general terms about the subject of education. Alvin Toffler, the well-known futurist, made one of the more prescient observations.

“The illiterate of the 21st century,” Toffler wrote, “will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Stanford’s innovations in undergraduate education are now part of the intellectual fabric on campus. How did the University move from the general proposition to offer students the nation’s finest undergraduate education to a course of study that was innovative, engaging and useful in a world defined by a new vision for the meaning of literacy?

To start, Stanford’s goal for its undergraduate experience had always been to instill a passion for intellectual pursuits and prepare students for a life of learning. In many ways, the goal reflected Toffler’s vision of preparing literate citizens for the next century. As we reviewed our undergraduate experience, four specific objectives evolved to guide us toward that ambitious goal.

First, we wanted to engage students in the search for knowledge and the excitement of that search from the moment they arrived on campus.

Second, we wanted to provide many more opportunities for students to work with faculty in small-group settings that would allow faculty members to share their intellectual passions.

Third, we wanted undergraduate students to be able to take advantage of Stanford’s preeminence as a research institution, by becoming involved in the search for new knowledge.

And finally, we wanted to broaden the range of intellectual pursuits that we offered students, to help them find their interests and let them experience different ways to learn.

The initial focus of our efforts was the freshman and sophomore experience. Clearly, if we could make the first two years of Stanford intellectually stimulating, it would set the stage for further engagement in the junior and senior years. The practical question became: how could we make those first two years more engaging? President Gerhard Casper and members of Stanford’s Commission on Undergraduate Education understood that, as a first principle, we needed to increase the contact between our exceptional faculty and our talented students during their first two years.

The second principle was to make these introductory experiences rewarding and engaging for students. We wanted to let them select their interests in a flexible and broad manner, without being limited by concepts such as requirements and prerequisites, which become important in later years as students pursue a major.

The commission considered many ways to accomplish its goals, but concluded that the best way to do so was by asking the faculty to engage our freshmen and sophomores in a variety of small seminar courses that reflected the passions of teachers and students. The innovations that have resulted—Freshman Seminars, Freshman/Sophomore College, Sophomore Dialogues, Sophomore College, undergraduate research opportunities, and others—have been successful precisely because they are built on the bedrock of intellectual pursuits shared by faculty and students.

Our efforts also have been successful because they are deeply rooted in Stanford’s culture of liberal education and crossdisciplinary pursuit of knowledge. One of the key early innovations, in 1997, was a new core curriculum for freshmen, called “Introduction to the Humanities.” IHUM, as it is popularly known, is built on the foundation of a shared experience in the humanities together with a multidisciplinary approach to understanding human civilization, experience and culture. I recently received a letter that emphasized the importance of such a framework from an alumnus named Bruce Byers.

“I’m a self-employed consultant based in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Byers, ’73, wrote. “It was in 1997, when I was teaching at the University of Zimbabwe and doing research on sacred forests, that I began to realize the debt I owed to the Stanford human biology program. Having shifted into ecology and evolution in graduate school, I was finally, as a Fulbright scholar, working at the interdisciplinary interface between ecology and social sciences that human biology had exposed me to 25 years earlier.”

As Mr. Byers’s experience shows, Stanford has long embraced Toffler’s observation about the need to learn and relearn. Given the attention and resources we have devoted to our undergraduate curriculum since then, the dedication of our faculty, and the support of our friends and alumni, Stanford is now poised to take undergraduate education to an even higher level.