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New Ethics Course Exposes High School Students to Stanford’s Structured Liberal Education (SLE)

By: Stanford Digital Education

Those who knew the late Mark Mancall, professor emeritus of history in the School of Humanities and Sciences, can attest to his fierce dedication to revolutionizing undergraduate education at Stanford.

Mancall re-envisioned what was possible in the undergraduate learning space by starting the groundbreaking Grove House residential learning project, the first co-ed residence on campus. This became a precursor for Structured Liberal Education (SLE), which he founded in 1973. Often referred to as ‘a liberal arts college experience’ within the University, SLE is a residence-based academic program that combines the reading of foundational texts with writing instruction for about 90 freshmen each year who live together in East Florence Moore Hall.

Since its inception, Mancall’s aspiration of building communities that blended academic and residential life together has become a reality – transforming the lives of thousands of Stanford students.

Honoring his Legacy

When Mancall passed away in August 2020, SLE Lecturer Greg Watkins reconnected with Mike Taubman, a teacher at Uncommon Schools in Brooklyn and an alumnus of both SLE and Stanford’s STEP program.

“We saw one part of Mark’s legacy as bringing this idea that had become SLE out of Stanford and into the larger world,” says Taubman.

In the summer of 2021, Taubman and Watkins created a two-week pilot program that introduced elements of the SLE curriculum to high school students in East Palo Alto and Brooklyn Taubman ran the Brooklyn program, and Watkins led the East Palo Alto program.

After this successful pilot program, SLE, with the support of Stanford Digital Education and the National Education Equity Lab and in partnership with the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, launched the course “Searching Together after the Common Good: An Introduction to Ethics in the Western Tradition” in Winter Quarter of 2021-22. This new humanities course virtually introduced the SLE curriculum to a dozen high school students at Uncommon Charter High School in Brooklyn and offered Stanford credits to these high school students. Unlike the pilot program, several Stanford SLE students were also enrolled in the class, learning together and mentoring their fellow students. The bicoastal course was led by both Taubman and Watkins.

“The culture and the feel of the classroom is the most important part of the program. It’s about creating an environment of community inquiry into some of life’s big questions,” says Watkins.

The Common Good

The new course featured important works from the Western tradition, which is used to construct and explore some basic frameworks for ethical thinking. The curriculum includes Aristotle, Antigone, Confucius, and Marx, but also incorporates material from more recent generations including the movie Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee).

In a way, as Watkins sees it, the course captures the essence of SLE: “The phrase ‘searching together after the common good’ comes from the founding document of SLE. In the document, Mancall says one way to think about the history of the West is that it's a centuries-long conversation about how we're all going to get along together. It's the project of searching for the common good together. Why not create a class where that is also what the people in the class are doing?”

Throughout the years, Mancall expressed certain worries about our society and the future. A sentiment that Taubman and Watkins share. “Mark believed deeply that we are in need of some important conversations in our society that aren't necessarily happening,” Taubman says. “About how our society should be structured to be a place with less suffering and more joy. We see this course as a place where some of those conversations can get started.”

On Mondays and Wednesdays, Stanford students and high school students met virtually. Led by Watkins, they read foundational ethics texts, engaged in group discussions facilitated by the Stanford students via breakout rooms, and reviewed essays written by the high school students. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Taubman led an in-person class with the high school students. Unlike a traditional classroom setting, the course is designed to foster a co-learning, near-peer mentor model that encourages authentic conversations between the high school and Stanford students.

“It’s amazing to interact with a group of people who have gone to school together over the years and to hear the comfortability they have in challenging each other,” says Stanford freshman Ula Lucas. “It sparks very interesting and well-informed conversations.”

Scaling Humanities

The recent rise of online learning, fueled by the pandemic, has created new opportunities in education. With the help of hybrid learning, Taubman and Watkins are excited about the possibility of expanding this humanities course model to high schools across the country. 

"What we're trying to do is strictly democratic in the sense that we want to create something that any high school teacher anywhere could use,” Watkins says. “We want to equip teachers with the experience, curricula, and resources to bring this kind of thing to their own classrooms,” says Watkins.

By the end of the course, the goal is to make students feel like they are citizens of the city of ideas and that they have agency and a voice in conversations. On a broader level, as Taubman describes it, SLE is a tradition of inquiry and community building. “It’s about caring deeply about the world and one another, and caring deeply about the ideas that helped create the world and help shape our interactions with one another.”

For both Watkins and Taubman, expanding SLE and Mancall’s legacy beyond Stanford to the broader world is a personal endeavor.

“We’re part of something larger than us,” Taubman says. “We are carrying forward this torch that Professor Mancall has left us.”