Widgets Magazine


Modern Manners: Does Thinking Matters matter?

You’ve probably heard that Introduction to the Humanities is being replaced by a one-quarter requirement called Thinking Matters. In a prior Daily article, IHUM chair Russell Berman was quoted as saying that the new program is intended to help students transition “from high school thinking to college thinking.” Another major goal of the overhaul is to give freshmen more space in their schedules to explore different academic areas, as the requirement will be completed in one quarter rather than the three quarters it takes to finish IHUM. It has also been generally admitted that some students intensely dislike IHUM, and of course everyone hopes that Thinking Matters will be more popular.

The phrase “Thinking Matters” could be read as “matters about which to think,” but I assume most people will read “Matters” as a verb. The implicit message to incoming students will be that this class is designed to teach them that thinking is important. Wait a second — isn’t that a little condescending? Does anyone believe the fact that thinking matters is news to Stanford students?

The people who become Stanford undergraduates start out as some of the most academically elite high school students in the world. Every year, the number of applications rises and the admit rate drops a little lower, making it ever harder to impress an admissions committee that is used to seeing perfect grades, near-perfect test scores, and significant Advanced Placement coursework from its applicants. More and more freshmen are coming in having already done college-like research projects, whether by working in biology labs or pouring through historical archives. Isn’t it condescending to introduce these people to college with a course titled “Thinking Matters,” as if they don’t already know that? If Stanford admits know one thing, it’s that thinking has mattered a lot in their lives. There are few groups in the country that are less in need of hearing this message.

I really do not mean to attack anyone with this column. I don’t know how Thinking Matters got its name, but I’m sure that no one intended the name to disrespect the abilities and accomplishments of incoming freshmen. It’s not easy to come up with a name to tie together a broad general education requirement that can be fulfilled with a variety of seemingly unrelated courses, and I personally haven’t been able to think of another name. I just hope decision-makers will think more about the connotations of the current title because I want Thinking Matters to succeed. When a requirement has a patronizing name, it is asking to be disliked, regardless of the value of the course material.

In an absolute sense, future freshmen are almost guaranteed to like Thinking Matters more than their predecessors liked IHUM, because they will be taking it for just one quarter instead of three. But will they truly enjoy Thinking Matters? After all, it is possible to be educated without enjoying it. The goal of general education requirements is not to force students to memorize any specific body of knowledge, but rather to encourage critical thought. For students to experience intellectual growth in Thinking Matters, they will have to engage with the material and be inspired by it, which means they will have to like it. If the requirement is instead subject to general derision, then the few who choose to engage in class will likely suffer a “Thinking Matters kid” stigma. In my opinion, students would feel freer to get excited about the material if the course had a more intellectually serious title. For Thinking Matters to matter, it might need a new name.


Jeff’s last column is next week! Email your ideas to jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.