What Do Students Need to Learn?

Rod Searcey

Almost a year has passed since the formation of a task force charged with examining undergraduate education throughout the University. With roughly another year to go before a final report and recommendations reach the Faculty Senate, the Study for Undergraduate Education at Stanford has been reviewing and gathering opinions about the current curriculum. STANFORD sat down with the task force's co-chairs, history professor James Campbell and biology professor Susan McConnell, to get an update on the group's work.

What's driving the study and what has the process been like?

McConnell: The last time the undergraduate curriculum and the general education requirements were reviewed was in 1994 by the Commission on Undergraduate Education. There has been a sense that that was a very long time ago and the world has changed a huge amount since then. In '94, there were no iPods, there was no YouTube, there were no hybrid cars, no digital cameras for consumers. And think about the way the world has changed: 9/11, global warming, all of the incredible events of the past 15 years. So it's basically time for us to reconsider what students need to know to navigate the world that we live in.

Campbell: We've consulted with over a dozen departments, and we'll go to probably that many again. We've met with every stakeholder we could think of . . . everybody who has an iron in the fire of undergraduate education. We've spent an enormous amount of time talking with students about their experience. And we also spent a lot of time learning about peer institutions.

What kinds of issues are emerging from your interaction with students?

Campbell: We'll look a lot at residential education, just to give you one example. Without wanting to prejudge it, I think Stanford could do much better at residential education. For many students, there is a pretty wide chasm within their intellectual lives, their lives in classrooms and their lives in dorms. So is there some way, without trying to sweat them 24-7, to try to infuse into residential life some of the broader intellectual questions we're trying to get them to engage with?

Is there anything that has made a particularly strong impact on you so far?

McConnell: I think the major thing we've done over the past year is to fully endorse the importance of a liberal education. . . . We're very aware of the concerns of parents right now, in the economic conditions that we're facing, about whether students are going to get the practical training they need to enter the workforce, the job market and graduate schools. But the thing that we've realized is that the skill set that a liberal education gives you is the skill set that enables you to navigate across different cultures, to deal with ethical concerns and to function in this world right now.

Campbell: To echo Sue, the skills that liberal education is designed to teach—which are skills about synthesizing information; doing research; not only answering questions but challenging the premises of questions; thinking laterally about new kinds of circumstances; evaluating evidence; thinking about the ethical dimensions of your conduct; operating collaboratively in diverse teams—those are the skills that in fact these students are going to need, not only to be ethical and responsible citizens but also to be successful in their chosen endeavors.