Like the 14th-century dominican friars she studies, Hester Gelber loves a knotty argument laced with provocative questions--about, say, the vitality of the University.

"Why should someone spend the amount of money you have to spend to get this kind of education?" the associate professor of religious studies asks. "What is the justification for society at large in the continuation of this kind of institution? What are the values we are contributing? Those questions put the challenge right in our laps--to prove that we are important to the quality and health of society."

As a specialist in the intellectual history of the late Middle Ages, Gelber has studied universities as they emerged at the beginning of the 13th century and scrutinized those that survived. The most distinguished institutions, she says, were tolerant of new ideas and made space for creative work. As chair of this year's Faculty Senate committee on undergraduate studies (cus), Gelber wants to see how Stanford is measuring up as a caretaker of curiosity in the new century.

"The University has been the source of much of the economic engine we've got going," Gelber says. "But the humanistic values of the institution are absolutely critical for being able to make sense of the larger aims and hopes and obligations we have as human beings--to create wonderful things of beauty."

Gelber, who pioneered a course titled Origin of the Universities when she taught at Stanford's Oxford campus in 1996, calls institutions of higher education "an extraordinary luxury" that society can afford only after its basic needs are met. "Universities bring students and teachers to them, draw them in, and then send them back out to recirculate ideas and information," she says. "We engage in exploits of curiosity that are the marvel of being human."

Gelber, who designed her own history major as an undergraduate at Cornell University and did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, says she's troubled by the perception that students in California, unlike their East Coast counterparts, do not claim an intellectual identity as such.

"We've had this tradition at Stanford where students tend to bury their intellectual interests under a bushel," she says. "They have them, but it's almost like a secret vice that they don't talk about--and it's not a mechanism for bonding in the student community."

At the same time, Stanford undergraduates have seen one change in curriculum after another in recent years--from the revamped freshman humanities program to the increased number of small classes and seminars. They are doing more research and writing more critically than ever before. At least, that's been the goal.

"We've implemented all these things and now we need to ask how it's working," Gelber says. "We need to know if we are fulfilling our obligations to students by fostering the kinds of intellectual experiences that will send them out into the world prepared to be flexible, creative, intellectually aware and lively folk who will know how to put their hands on information and evaluate it. And we need to see how students are experiencing the successes and the failures of what we've been doing."

Gelber suggests that the University is at a crossroads of sorts, "going through a period of time when what it means to be a Stanford undergraduate is changing." She thinks it's high time to "give serious thought to where we are going and why . . . and we need to be thinking about how we're going to get feedback about the consequences of what we're doing, or else there will be unintended consequences."

How to best take the temperature of the times? Gelber and committee members plan to distribute a questionnaire through the registrar's office, individual classes or the assu. The goal? "A snapshot of undergraduate intellectual experience."

Gelber has had her finger on the pulse of student life for a number of years. She was a faculty resident, with her two sons, in Twain House, and she has taught seminars to freshmen she describes as simultaneously "eager, happy to be here and scared to death." In fall quarter she co-taught, with assistant philosophy professors Christopher Bobonich and Lanier Anderson, a course in the Intro-duction to the Humanities program titled Self Reflections. With 225 freshmen she examined Plato, Boethius, Chaucer, Montaigne and Nietzsche.

"We asked ourselves, 'Okay, if you want to get a reader or an audience to think, how do you go about that?' And we discovered how those thinkers had created reflective spaces in their texts, where readers were forced to think for themselves."

Gelber argues that similar reflective thinking now is in order about undergraduate life. Since she proposed a stock-taking snapshot to the Faculty Senate in September, Gelber and her committee have been mulling over the kinds of questions they will ask students, faculty and perhaps alumni. They hope to collect responses during winter quarter and analyze the data in the spring.

"We might want to ask about students' expectations when they came to Stanford," says Julie Kennedy, PhD '92, a senior lecturer in earth sciences who serves on CUS. "Some questions could be: What were you thinking your relationship with faculty would be like? Have things like Stanford Introductory Studies helped in that regard? How important has that exposure been to your overall Stanford experience?"

Political science professor and committee member Judith Goldstein says the life of the mind is thriving on campus--for students and faculty. Noting that "a lot of time and effort has been devoted in recent years to the first two years of students' experiences at Stanford," Goldstein says colleagues she talks with think "it may be time now to look at what is happening in the following two years."

CUS committee member Gavin Wright agrees that now is a prime time to sample student opinion. "We've tried to change the culture for students in the first two years, and part of the questionnaire ought to look at whether there really have been changes across the board."

Wright, an economic historian who worked on a black-voter registration project in the American South in the '60s, has taught two seminars for sophomore college, one of which focused on an economic interpretation of American history. "It was something I'd always wanted to teach, and I've never encountered such enthusiasm in the classroom," he says. "We became quite close there and I made lasting acquaintances. And I think that's a question we should be asking students: Is there some faculty member you feel connected to, as a result of these small-group experiences?"

Gelber says the committee will be taking on the telling of a "huge story."

"And yes, we would have more information seven years from now," she adds. "But what I want to do now is find a way to sink a posthole down into the qualitative questions."