As a high school senior in 1974, Jeff Stone was torn between the opportunities of a large university and the intimacy of a small liberal arts college. It was only after choosing Stanford that he saw an option that seemed to promise the best of both. He enrolled in the Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program, a yearlong dive into the canon in which students live together in the same dorms as they study the same texts and attend the same lectures.
Taking SLE was a speculative move based on reading a few paragraphs in the Approaching Stanford booklet. He had little else by which to judge it; SLE had only launched the year before. But Stone, ’78, says the experience—wrestling with great thinkers in their own words, confronting big philosophical questions, and honing his own arguments before professors, lecturers, and tutors—was all he had hoped. His two years in SLE—one as a student, the other as a tutor—still shape the way he sees the world. “It affected the way I write and the way I think and the way I speak,” says Stone, a trial attorney and, since 2018, a Stanford trustee. “It changed my life in many, many ways, all for the better.”
Fifty years later, SLE (“slee,” for the uninitiated) is Stanford’s longest-running frosh humanities program. And in a world where so many people view higher education as job preparation, SLE’s proud embrace of rigorous learning for learning’s sake can make it seem more unusual as it ages. The 8-unit-per-quarter program represents roughly half of a first-year student’s coursework, with much of that time spent reading, writing, and rewriting. “You write an essay and then your tutor puts red marks all over it,” says Gabriela Teodorescu Bockhaus, ’96. “And that process happens three, four, five times with each essay. You really learn how to write and how to build an argument.” In an academic career that included studying at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar, there’s no question, she says, that SLE was her most meaningful educational experience.
While it’s not for everyone, SLE has traditionally had no trouble drawing newcomers. Each year, it enrolls around 90 frosh, who live in two houses in East Florence Moore Hall, where all SLE lectures, discussion sections, and film screenings take place. The result is a version of undergraduate life in which students can live and breathe the ideas that they’re tackling together. Discussions on Plato’s Republic, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal can easily flow into dinner. And indeed, that’s where much of the learning occurs.
“It’s not like we’re talking about this stuff all the time,” says Andrew Lee, a junior math major who is now a SLE tutor. “But we are talking about this stuff remarkably often for college freshmen.”
Somewhere along the way, SLE got pegged as a haven for intellectuals, and generations of SLE students have suffered, embraced, and maybe slightly exaggerated their reputation as nerds among nerds. “I’ve attended parties where I was treated as perfectly normal until someone leaked my secret—that I was a SLE kid,” David Garfield, ’03, MS ’04, wrote in a 2001 edition of Stanford. “While I may not be the pale hermit they had envisioned, they still looked at me as if I had a benign social disease.” “[T]his stereotype of SLE students is so widespread that it is not just contained on this campus,” Fiona McNiff Coffey, ’02, wrote in the Daily in 1999. “Over vacation in Boston, I met a random Stanford student, who, when he found out I was SLE, proceeded to groan emphatically and roll his eyes around in his head until they looked as if they would pop out of their sockets.”
“Not everybody wants to talk about the meaning of the good life at 10:00 on a Saturday night,” Stone explains.
Ironically, if it weren’t for a raging fraternity party, SLE might never have been born. In 1966, a toga party at the Phi Delta Theta house got so out of hand that it ended up as front-page news. The university suspended the Phi Delts, and their vacant house became home to the Grove Project, the university’s first co-ed residence, an experiment in residential education led by history professor Mark Mancall. All students in the house participated in a common seminar, though dinner table discussion was perhaps an even more important focus. The purpose, Mancall told the Daily, was to “show that a university the size of Stanford can create a situation in which intellectual life and the living situation are not divorced.”
The project was generally a success, says Jon Reider, ’67, PhD ’83, who lived in Grove House and later taught in SLE. “But we really needed to have something with a good deal more structure.” In the fall of 1973, Mancall started SLE. In part, his motivations were as timeless as those of any liberal arts professor spreading the Socratic dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Mancall wanted to educate students, he later told the Stanford Historical Society, “according to a classic answer to the question of, ‘What is important to know? What is important to understand?’” But Mancall—who died in 2020—was also motivated by the realities of his day, particularly a rising campus radicalism he saw as unconnected to reason and deep thought. “He wanted to keep the students from being too crazy and too radical,” Reider says.
Naturally, SLE attracts students intent on majoring in the humanities, but it also appeals to students who pursue—or think they will pursue—other academic paths. Greg Watkins, ’85, PhD ’03, a former SLE student who retired this year after more than two decades as a lecturer in the program, arrived at Stanford planning to study chemical engineering en route to medical school. SLE was simply a way to knock out his humanities requirements. It was his awe at The Seventh Seal—and the trauma of organic chemistry—that persuaded him to reconsider. He ended up designing his own major—social theory—before earning an MFA in film production at UCLA and a dual PhD in religious studies and humanities at Stanford. Junior Vibhu Guru, a biomedical computation major who took SLE before returning as a residential student leader (aka RA) there, says she was as attracted by the program’s community as she was by the chance to pursue the kind of intellectual exploration that she had loved in high school literature courses.
Today, the program remains heavily rooted in the Western canon: The ancient Greeks still get long and close attention, as do Marx, Shakespeare, Dante, Nietzsche, et al. But for decades, European works haven’t been the exclusive focus. More than 30 years ago, Priya Satia, ’95, a Stanford history professor, chose SLE because of the diversity of the syllabus. “We read the Bible, but we also read the Gita, we also read texts from the Muslim world,” she says. And it was in SLE that she first read the Afro-Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon, a leader of postcolonial thought whose book The Wretched of the Earth she has “worked with and taught with” her entire career.
Some still argue that the coursework needs more diversity. Watkins acknowledges those concerns but points out that SLE doesn’t expect students to revere the works they study. Part of the purpose is to give students the intellectual ammunition to engage with the Western canon “even if you’re going to burn it down.” But certainly, attitudes can shift the other way too. Chana Lanter, ’25, arrived in SLE two years ago as a prospective Middle Eastern studies major eager to take on the Western canon—mostly to be rid of it. Her enmity didn’t last long. “I have just been humbled,” she says. “I’m not smarter than Socrates. That’s OK. Why don’t we just read him and see what he has to say?”
One of Lee’s favorite memories from SLE was going to dinner immediately after lectures on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. “We sit down and it’s like, ‘All right, what do people think about the lecture?’” he says. “Then we’d argue back and forth about what we thought was good, what we thought was bad, and what we thought was really stupid.” Even when discussions inevitably range beyond academics, there is a tendency for analysis and debate to break out. “The other day we spent two hours arguing whether water was wet or not,” says Guru, an international student from Papua New Guinea. “Everyone has something to say, some argument. And then people take sides or bounce ideas off each other.”
For Stone, that conversation never stopped. No single thinker he studied nearly 50 years ago had a monopoly on truth, he says, but reading them gave him different perspectives on truth that he still uses, whether it’s thinking of Nietzsche, the nihilist philosopher, when he regards certain modern politicians, or tragedian Aeschylus when he sees law clients brought down by an inability to get out of their own way. And those big questions from the first quarter of his frosh year—what is it to live a good life, to have a just society?—still resound in his thoughts. “SLE taught me that these kinds of questions are not limited to a freshman seminar,” he says. “They can be part of a life journey.”
Sam Scott is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vintage 1973 Collection
Stanford is 50! It turns out we’re not the only one. Walk with us down memory lane as we sample some of the wonders and horrors of the 1973–74 academic year on the Farm, and in the world around.