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Preparing Citizens:Education for a life of purpose

Civil society is fraying a bit. COLLEGE has a fix.

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From the pandemic to geopolitics, the defining issues of our day are increasingly marked by the discord they provoke. In lieu of discussions we have social media shouting matches; instead of listening to one another, we retreat to our ideological silos.

Often it seems the only thing we can agree on is the depth of our differences.

Some 85 percent of Americans say the tone and nature of political debate in the United States has become more negative and less respectful in recent years, according to the Pew Research Center; 76 percent say it’s less fact-based, 60 percent say it’s less substantive. Half say they simply avoid talking to people with whom they disagree. It’s just too stressful and frustrating.

“You cannot have civil disagreement without some baseline level of trust between people, and that takes time,” said Collin Anthony Chen, associate director of Stanford’s McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society.

This growing intolerance for differing ideas was the subject of a New York Times editorial this past September, written by Stanford faculty leaders Dan Edelstein and Debra Satz. More than the “consequence of an increasingly polarized society,” they wrote, this intolerance stems “from the failure of higher education to provide students with the kind of shared intellectual framework that we call civic education. It is our responsibility as educators to equip students to live in a democratic society whose members will inevitably disagree on many things.”

Enter COLLEGE. At its core, Stanford’s reimagined first-year curriculum—Civic, Liberal, and Global Education—encourages students to examine their personal goals, their place within their community, and their responsibility to the world. They do so through three separate, consecutive courses that build upon each other throughout a student’s first year. The takeaway: skills that equip students to make meaningful contributions to society. 

How does it work? See for yourself with this condensed journey through the program. The only prerequisites: A willingness to examine your own life, to question how and why you make decisions, and to respect others’ views—no matter how unlike yours they may be.

Welcome to COLLEGE at Stanford.
When people bring different perspectives to the discussion, you really ask yourself, ‘What do I believe?’ ”
Eden Hadar, ’26
Daniel Gaughran smiles at the camera standing under the quad
Audio: Ashley Tamdjo, ’26; Akash Shah, ’26; Elena Kopstein, ’26; Natasha Banga, ’26. Photo: Eden Hadar, ’26. Photo: Daniel Gaughran, ’24. Video: featuring Professors Chris Field and William Barnett; Katelyn Kramer, ’26.
Stanford students sitting in a row of a classroom

Why College? Your Education and the Good Life

Fall Quarter

The fall term is all about self-discovery: What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of life will you live?

Your journey starts in a 15-student seminar, but your syllabus is shared by all the students at Stanford taking Why College?, the first course in the COLLEGE curriculum.

This is by design, according to Dan Edelstein, COLLEGE faculty director and the William H. Bonsall Professor of French in the School of Humanities and Sciences. “We want students to have a shared intellectual experience,” he says. “(They) can still talk about themes, books, and assignments outside of class with their dormmates or friends.”

Your course begins with a diverse range of topics and authors, crossing multiple disciplines. You learn to read scientific and academic articles.

Du Bois has this great quote:
‘Education must not only teach work but must also teach life,’ and I think that is liberal arts education at its best.”
Lerone Martin, COLLEGE instructor, Martin Luther King, Jr., Centennial Professor, faculty director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute, and associate professor of religious studies

Because this course is seminar-style, “students get time with a professor and with each other to explore controversial topics, building mutual understanding and trust even in the face of disagreement,” says Debra Satz, who is the Vernon R. and Lysbeth Warren Anderson Dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society, and also has served as a COLLEGE instructor.

You’re assigned to read The Happiness Hypothesis, which prompts the question “Is higher education stressing us out?”

You discuss this with your group. How is stress related to socioeconomic status? How should it be measured? One student points out that stress is a personal, subjective experience. Another suggests looking at the hormones associated with stress. Another mentions the effects of addiction and poverty on stress.

Together you poke holes in arguments, pepper each other with questions, and challenge assumptions when appropriate. Civil discourse, in other words.

We have to push students and society towards this rigorous interrogation and move away from presuppositions. . . . And here’s the tough part: Be willing to be moved,” says Lerone Martin.

Why College is all about sampling new things,” says student Daniel Gaughran, ’24. “It pushes you to pursue people who know things that you don’t, to ask them questions, and to find answers that you don’t know anything about and to step outside your comfort zone.”

For one assignment, you leave behind electronic devices, go outside, and sit alone for 10 minutes with a piece of paper, pencil, and your thoughts. You take in what is going on around you, and write about it.

“The idea is, the more we become attuned to the outside, the more we become attuned and inwardly aware as well,” says Edelstein.

For Gaughran, the result is powerful. “You’re in this incredible state of creative freedom,” he says. “All these thoughts flow in and out of your mind that sparked something I really liked.”

Week after week, the questions keep coming: What do you need to know about the world to really know yourself? Can you learn happiness? What is the role of science in education? How does depth of learning compare to breadth?

“I really like the breakdown of the class, like the one question per week format,” says fellow student Elena Kopstein, ’26. “The class is oriented away from conclusions and toward questions. My classmates and I often drew very different conclusions from the text we read, and our disagreement was encouraged. It was a great model of how to have rigorous but respectful intellectual debate.”

COLLEGE teaches students to think for themselves, giving them the skills to challenge assumptions and build arguments thoughtfully and effectively.

Dan Edelstein, the William H. Bonsall Professor of French and professor of history, suggests people with deeply opposing views can have fruitful conversations if the goal is to understand rather than convince.

Stanford students with laptops sit at a round table in a classroom

Citizenship in the 21st Century

Winter Quarter

In the winter quarter, you’re ready to broaden your focus beyond yourself to your neighbors, your community, your country. Citizenship in the 21st Century asks you to explore how societies work when its citizens can’t agree on what’s true, and what it means when threats such as climate change cross all national boundaries.

You’re asked to critically examine what citizenship means, to whom it applies, who is excluded, what duties go along with it, what role technology and civil resistance play, how it has been revised—and how it ought to be revised in the future.

You might be surprised to learn how countries decide who gets to be a citizen, or how they limit expression and free speech. In a session called “Cooperation is hard … and yet it happens!” you explore how societies succeed or fail at working together.

Eden Hadar says her COLLEGE courses helped her learn more about herself. “Having that lifelong search for exploration about whatever topic it might be . . . is really important given how global our culture is becoming.”

“When people bring different perspectives to the discussion, you really ask yourself, ‘What do I believe?’” says student Eden Hadar, ’26.

Eden Hadar's handwritten note which says "When people bring different perspectives to the discussion, you really ask yourslef, 'What do I believe?'"

You dig into the legal aspects of citizenship, such as immigration and naturalization, and try to answer the questions on the civics exam that immigrants must pass to become a U.S. citizen. As a group, your class discusses the test’s purpose more broadly and brainstorms alternatives.

Personal reflections invariably filter in.

“One of my earliest memories was when my mom was naturalized,” one student recalls. “I have these very vivid memories of sitting in the car and quizzing her on the way back and forth to school.”

“It’s interesting that this is a test to become a citizen, but when we think about what is a citizen—is it about being able to recall these facts?” asks another.

A third student proposes that a test of concepts and characteristics—the ability to be inclusive and tolerant, for instance—might be more meaningful than a test of historic facts.

In addition to class discussions, you might attend a panel discussion called “Is Democratic Citizenship in Crisis?” featuring Condoleezza Rice, the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy and former secretary of state from 2005 to 2009.

Or maybe you explore themes of ambition, loyalty, and greed in politics and power by discussing a modern interpretation of Julius Caesar put on by the Department of Theater & Performance Studies.

When sensitive and controversial topics arise, you speak up, leading to lively and sometimes intense discussions. That’s the whole point. You learn to listen to people with whom you don’t always agree.

It’s really important to get people to the point where they can question ideas without always questioning motives.”
James T. Hamilton, the Hearst Professor of Communication in the School of Humanities and Sciences and chair of the COLLEGE governing board

“The Citizenship class prepares Stanford students to play significant roles in local, national, and global affairs by challenging them to think hard about how democracies should and do operate,” said Hamilton.

COLLEGE courses are taught by faculty from a variety of backgrounds. Instructors have included former Provost Persis Drell, the James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering, and Lloyd Minor, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the School of Medicine.

“I think it's really important to want to grow, want to learn, want to know more,” says Eden Hadar, ’26.

An instructor describes a plant to a group of Stanford students standing together outside

Global Perspectives

Spring Quarter

It’s spring quarter, and after studying yourself and your own communities, you are now ready to pivot to issues that affect everyone on the planet. You choose from several course offerings that cover topics like the climate crisis, pain and suffering, viruses and war, and democracy.

The overarching question in each of these Global Perspectives courses: How can you solve the world’s biggest problems without causing new ones?

You learn how storytelling can influence change.

“The way you tell the narrative can significantly change the story,” says Hadar. “Even though the facts might be the same, picking and choosing information can really shape how you view the science.”

You create a podcast about an interesting or controversial story you encountered while researching your assigned topic. Victoria Sofia Villarreal, 24, for example, works with her team to animate the story of black frontline workers during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Similarly, Hadar shares the story of Janet Parker, the last known person to die of smallpox, in order to evaluate the safety standards for storing and studying pathogens.

In their Global Perspectives course in 2021, Victoria Sofia Villarreal, Edoardo Yin, and Janice Yeuhthong Teoh created a visual presentation of black frontline workers during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia.

Maybe you realize the scope of an issue, like Stefaniya Zozulya, ’26, who says, “Systemic change means making sure that everybody is included in the solutions—not the aggregate or the average, but every group, including the most vulnerable.”

Or you gain new perspectives on your world, like Katelyn Kramer, ’26, who says, “The thing that I’ve taken most out of this class is that people are meant to evolve with nature, but in American society, what’s most common is evolving away from nature by building things, like cities, that are very separate from nature and disconnected.”

You come away with a new understanding of the challenges ahead—but also new hope for the future and your role in it.

“For every problem you name, there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, often thousands, of innovators trying to help us cope with those problems,” says instructor William Barnett, who is the Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Business Leadership at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “This new generation will be known as the greatest generation. I know they said that about my parents’ generation, but it will be the generation to come because they will be building sustainability into everything that they do.”

While teaching Environmental Sustainability: Global Predicaments and Possible Solutions, Stanford professors William Barnett and Chris Field encourage their students to take roles in solving the environmental crisis.

Students Silvana Alfaro, Marvin Galdamez, Kenny Dao, and Abhinav Sinha created a podcast in their Living with Viruses course about the impact of the Zika pandemic in El Salvador.

A functional society depends on citizens who can discuss thorny and complex issues civilly.

“Free speech is hard work,” Edelstein and Satz wrote in their New York Times editorial. “The basic assumptions and attitudes necessary for cultivating free speech do not come to us naturally. Listening to people with whom you disagree can be unpleasant. But universities have a moral and civic duty to teach students how to consider and weigh contrary viewpoints.”

But the goal of COLLEGE isn’t just to create more thoughtful, engaged citizens. These courses also put students on a path to a richer life, both personally and professionally.

“Employers overwhelmingly report that they care little about majors and much more about communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills,” Edelstein says. “These same skills make us desirable both as friends and as co-workers.”

Perhaps most important, COLLEGE equips you to define your purpose. To become part of the solution. And to keep asking yourself: What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of life will you live?

Try your hand at this “final exam” to share what parts of COLLEGE resonate with you.

Undergraduate Education & Student Life: The impact

Why it matters

COLLEGE empowers students to navigate an increasingly challenging and polarized world by leveling the learning landscape, practicing civil discourse, promoting citizenship, and reinforcing social connections.

Ethics and citizenship are explored within a rigorous academic context. Students are taught to think critically about their own views and preconceptions, and to engage more deeply in intellectual debate, to practice cooperation, and to promote constructive, respectful discourse, especially across strong differences of opinion.

The opportunity

“I see this as one of the highest return-on-investment opportunities at Stanford because of how transformative the first-year experience can be.”

Nehal Raj, ’00, MS ’00, made gifts to establish the Nehal and Jenny Fan Raj COLLEGE Faculty Fellow and the Nehal and Jenny Fan Raj Lectureship in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

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Go deeper on undergrad education

Learn about Stanford’s new first-year curriculum.

Read the priority paper

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