Training a Generation of Active Citizens

Photo: Toni Bird

Over the past 12 months at Stanford, we’ve adapted our operations to respond to the pandemic, accelerated our work to advance racial justice, and advanced our plans for a school focused on climate change and sustainability. As we reflect on the challenges of the past year and prepare to return our community to campus when it’s safe to do so, we’ve also been thinking about the future of undergraduate education at Stanford. Two areas we’re prioritizing are community and civic responsibility.

The January attack on the U.S. Capitol made clear how vulnerable our democracy is. For those of us in higher education, it was also a reminder of our responsibility to educate the next generation not only for personal success, but also for a life of active citizenship. This academic year, we launched pilot courses for a new first-year Stanford requirement: Civic, Liberal, and Global Education. The goal of this requirement, which comes into effect in fall 2021, is to ensure that all Stanford students have the opportunity to engage deeply and intellectually with ethics and civic responsibility. Courses under this requirement aim to promote constructive disagreement and discourse that informs rather than polarizes.

When faculty conceived of and developed the new requirement during our long-range planning process, it was with the goal of providing all first-years, regardless of major, a shared intellectual experience. By focusing on civic responsibility, we hope to inspire students across all fields to consider the ethical and societal effects of their actions, now and in the future. Whether their careers involve developing new technology, making business decisions, creating art or literature, or one of the countless other paths our students may take, they will all face ethical questions in their professional lives. We hope this course will give students a firm foundation from which to navigate those questions. 

We hope to inspire students across all fields to consider the ethical and societal effects of their actions, now and in the future.

Beyond the first-year experience, there are numerous ways for Stanford students to participate in active citizenship. The Stanford in Washington program introduces students to public service through internships in Washington, D.C. Likewise, Stanford in Government, a student-led organization, has a long tradition of raising political awareness and connecting students with public service opportunities. 

Stanford in Government also runs the StanfordVotes campaign, which last year dedicated hundreds of hours to providing nonpartisan voting information and registering members of the Stanford community to vote. Due largely to their efforts, Stanford went from consistently underperforming the national average in undergraduate voter turnout to becoming a leader among colleges and universities in registering new voters. 

As we work to promote civic responsibility among our students, we’re also focused on advancing the public mission of Stanford itself. In 2018, we established the Office of External Relations, with the goal of organizing and amplifying the university’s engagement with our region, nation and world. The office is working to deepen relationships with the communities we touch, promote the value of science and scholarship, and communicate the role that research universities can play in solving the great challenges society faces—from health disparities to climate change to educational access. This work will help realize Stanford’s Long-Range Vision, which is inextricably tied to how we collaborate with others to address the pressing problems of our time.

The crises of the past year have made it clear that this work is more important than ever. As we look to the future, universities will play vital roles in preparing our world to address the great challenges we face. We can begin by ensuring that the next generation has the skills and knowledge to navigate ethical and societal dilemmas, and that the research and education conducted within our walls benefit the communities beyond them.


Marc Tessier-Lavigne is the president of Stanford University.