Rethinking Requirements

Stanford elevates "ethical reasoning" in general education program; some fear diversity issues are getting downgraded.
February 8, 2005

Stanford University is changing its undergraduate requirements -- increasing the chances that students will take a course focused on ethics. The revisions are controversial, and not because any professors are opposed to ethics. Rather, some of them fear that the shift will make it possible for students to graduate without taking a course focused on diversity.

The plan, approved by the Faculty Senate on Thursday, replaces general categories of courses (called Area 1, Area 2, and so forth), with real names. The idea is to convey to students why they are being urged to take certain courses. The new names for the general education requirements are Introduction to the Humanities, Disciplinary Breadth, and Education for Citizenship.

The controversy concerns the last category. Currently students have had to take two courses from among three categories in that area: world cultures, American cultures, and gender studies. Courses in a variety of departments were reviewed to determine their eligibility for those three fields. Because the world cultures area focused on non-Western culture, and because the American cultures focus was on the diverse groups within the United States, students had to take a course related to diversity because they had to take at least one course in one of those areas.

Starting with next year's students, however, there will be a new field in the Education for Citizenship category: ethical reasoning. And world cultures has been redefined to "the global community" to allow more courses to qualify. So students will have to take two courses from among ethical reasoning, the global community, American cultures, and gender studies. The combination of changes approved means, some fear, that students who take the ethics and global courses could avoid courses on race or gender issues while they are students at Stanford.

Chris Bobonich, a professor of philosophy who is chairman of the Stanford committee in charge of the requirements, cited several motivations for the changes. Part of what the faculty hopes to accomplish is better communication with students. "Students have been a bit puzzled about why we were requiring these courses," he said.

Promoting ethics courses, he said, came out of a sense that students are missing an important part of their intellectual foundation by not studying ethics. Bobonich said that he teaches many freshmen and that most students "have no way of thinking about ethical issues and disagreements."

He said that subject of ethics is "shockingly missing" from the curriculum.

"Many students seem to think that you have your view and I have my view and that's the end of it. They have no further idea of rational discourse, of how to persuade people rationally, or to really understand what their own views are," he added.

He expects that many of the courses that would fulfill the ethics requirement will be team taught. For example, he said that a philosopher and a political scientist might explore the issue of affirmative action, or a philosopher and an environmental scientist might explore environmental ethics.

The change from "world cultures" to "global community" followed complaints -- particularly from anthropologists -- that a narrow definition of world cultures as non-Western didn't reflect the realities of today's blended and interconnected societies. Also, courses on cultures that are indeed different from those in the United States -- for example those of Russia or Latin America -- were declared ineligible. The new, broader definition will include comparative studies of different cultures and issues that are global in nature.

The many professors who objected to the changes were largely focused on fears that the revisions would diminish the role of diversity in the curriculum.

Paula Moya, an associate professor of English, said that she was pleased with the new names for the requirements. "What I like about the changes is that they very clearly articulate why we have general education requirements," Moya said.

She also said she favored the idea of more students studying ethics.

But Moya, director of the undergraduate program of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, said that "the practical effect of this will be to dilute the focus on human diversity."

She said it would now be possible for students to avoid the study of human diversity, and she said that would be unfortunate. "Educating for citizenship has to pay attention to how we deal with human difference," she said. "As we live in an increasingly globalized society, it becomes less and less possible for us to live in our own little neighborhood."


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