ESF Courses

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  • Structure of ESF: The ESF seminar meets once per week for an hour 15 minutes. The writing workshop will meet twice per week for an hour and 50 minutes each session. The plenary meets on Fridays for 90 minutes.

  • About the seminars: ESF consists of six linked seminars, described below. Participating students will enroll in one seminar, taught by a faculty member from the featured discipline (or disciplines, in the case of team taught seminars). Each seminar has its own syllabus, reflecting the expertise, interests, and passions of the faculty, as well as their own takes on the common theme of self-fashioning through education. Each seminar will have two sections with a maximum of 15 students each.

  • Requirements fullfilled: All ESF courses fulfill at least one of the WAYS distribution requirements as well as the THINK and PWR requirement. 


  • ESF students will be enrolled to their ESF course by August 1. The first set of request for changes will be processed, Friday, August 10. Please refer to the THINK/ESF enroll page for additonal information on requesting a change and to view the enrollment calendar. The ESF program is oversubsribed and the wait list is full. For students in the ESF waitlist, you will be notified if a space becomes available and the first person to respond will be offered the position upon confirmation.
  • Non-ESF students may enroll in ESF 50 to receive one unit for attending all lectures. 

ESF Seminar Descriptions

ESF 2: How to Become a Global Citizen?
Kathryn Starkey (German Studies)

The concept of a liberal arts education was first developed in eighteenth-century Prussia by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) and soon adopted by other countries, including the United States. Humboldt considered a liberal arts education to be both a foundational and transformative process in the development of the self, and he was convinced that it was essential in creating moral and ethical citizens in an increasingly global world. From his point of view, the cultivation of oneself leads to the freedom of thought, freedom to act, freedom to assert oneself as an individual, freedom to access knowledge, and freedom to determine one’s own role in society . In this course we will explore Humboldt’s concept of education and examine the ways in which it is reflected and refracted in debates about university education still today. This course satisfies the Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry WAY (AII).


ESF 6: The Wind of Freedom
Robert Harrison (French and Italian)

Stanford's unofficial motto, "the wind of freedom blows," engraved in German on the university seal, invites us the ponder freedom in the context of education.  What is the relation between freedom and the "liberal" arts?  Does studying free your mind?  Does free will even exist?  If so, how does education help you develop its potential?  This course will look at various authors -- from antiquity through the 20th century -- who have thought about the blessings, burdens, and obligations of human freedom.  Beginning with Eve in the Garden of Eden, we will explore how exercising freedom in your personal choices and conduct not only determines your fate as an individual but carries with it a measure of responsibility for the world.  We will place special emphasis on the implications of such responsibility in our own time.  This course satisfies the Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry or Ethical Reasoning Ways (AII or ER).


ESF 7: The Transformation of the Self
Andrea Nightingale (Classics)

Socrates claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Socrates and other ancient thinkers examined themselves and found that they did not match up to their own ideals.  They set out to transform themselves to achieve a good and happy life.  What is the self?  How do different cultures conceive of the self?  How do we change ourselves to live a meaningful life?  We examine literature and philosophy to help us understand ourselves and to achieve our social, ethical, and personal ideals.  In this class, we focus on the lives and ideas of Socrates and Augustine.  Each struggled to live a good and happy life.  In each case, they urge us to transform ourselves into better human beings.  In the first half of the course, we read four of Plato’s dialogues.  These dialogues focus on the Athenian Socrates, who was put to death because he rejected traditional Greek social ideals.  Socrates set forth a philosophy based on ethical and intellectual goodness.  He claimed that practicing philosophy and enacting its ideals leads to a happy life.  The second half of the course focuses on a Roman author from North Africa: Augustine, an unhappy man who became a new person by converting to Christianity.  In his autobiographical Confessions, Augustine sets forth his views on self-examination, integrity, and authenticity.  He also models a new way of thinking about human goodness and the happy life.  These thinkers addressed questions and problems that we still confront today:  What is authenticity and how do we achieve this?  What constitutes a happy life?  Do we need to be good and ethical people to achieve happiness?  What are our ethical values?  Is there one correct set of values?  How do we accommodate other people’s beliefs?  Is it possible to transform oneself into a different kind of person?  If so, how do we go about changing ourselves to achieve our ideals?  In this class, you will work individually and collaboratively to develop your critical thinking, improve your writing skills, and learn how to communicate your ideas in a clear and concise way. This course satisfies the Ethical Reasoning (ER) WAY.



ESF 8: Recognizing the Self and Its Possibilities
Kenneth Taylor (Philosophy)

Some philosophers have argued that we have privileged and direct access to our inner selves. If this were true, it would make self-knowledge perhaps the easiest sort of knowledge to obtain.   But there are many considerations that mitigate against this view of self-knowledge.  Consider, for example, the slave who is so oppressed that he fully accepts his slavery and cannot even imagine the possibility of freedom for himself.    Such a slave fails to recognize his own capacity for freedom and autonomous self-governance. Though the slave is perhaps the extreme case, many people, it seems, fail to recognize the full range of possibilities open to them.    In this course, we shall examine both some of the ways in which one's capacity for self-recognition may be distorted and undermined and the role of education in enabling a person to fully recognize the self and its possibilities.   What constrains the range of possibilities we see as really open to us?    Contrary to the Cartesian, we shall argue that full self-recognition is an often a hard-won achievement.  And we shall ask how education might function to give us a less constricted and more liberating sense of the self and its possibilities. We will consider such questions through the lens of philosophy, literature and psychology.  This course satisfies the Interpretive Inquiry (AII) or Ethical Reasoning Ways (AII or ER).



ESF 13: The Discovery of the Mind
Paula Findlen (History)

What is worth knowing and how should we know?  Who can claim an education?  What is learning for?

The struggle to know began long before you entered the university.  The university as an institution has its origins in the late Middle Ages; it has been reinvented repeatedly as our ideas about education have changed.  People have been rebelling against how institutions define learning (and for whom) ever since.  This course introduces you to some of the most thoughtful and interesting reflections on the nature and purpose of an education, on knowledge and ignorance, at the birth of the modern world.  Understanding the quest to discover the mind and to embrace learning as a lifelong endeavor is a starting point to reflect on the goals of your own education, as an engaged intellectual citizen of the world. In this class, we foreground a historical perspective, while also developing the skills to read texts as philosophical, literary, and rhetorical documents, and to combine textual understanding with visual analysis.  Historical inquiry invites you to examine the world critically and contextually, to ask good questions and learn how to answer them with even better research.  Humanity exists in time and space, and history bridges the gulf of misunderstanding.  One day you will have lived through far more history than you have experienced so far.  Cultivating a relationship with the past enlarges and enriches your understanding of human experience in a changing world. This course satisfies the Aesthetic and Interpretative or Social Inquiry Way (AII or SI).



ESF 14: The Challenge of Choice
Rush Rehm (Theater and Performance Studies and Classics)

Often the choices facing us seem trivial and uninteresting; at other times, we seem to be making life-changing decisions. Sometimes we confuse one with the other – thoughtless choices we make loom large in retrospect; others that appear earth shattering at the moment prove of little lasting significance later on. How can we make sense of this disparity? What are the forces that operate on us when we’re confronted with a decision, and how does understanding those influences and pressures assist us in making the best choice? In what ways can a liberal arts education help inform this decision-making process? In this course, we address these questions by engaging key texts that explore decisions and their consequences, exposing the multi-faceted nature of choice: agency, fate, circumstance, social forces, biological inheritance, duty, responsibility, freedom, contingency, privilege, costs, benefits. The course will involve learning to read and think critically, interpret and analyze texts (plays, films, essays) and articulate your ideas and arguments in conversation and in writing. Distance from our own subjectivity – the stories are not ours, but they could be – allows these works to shed light on the dilemmas that face us as we go about ‘choosing’ the life we think we would like to live. This course satisfies the Aesthetic and Interpretative Way (AII).



ESF 15: College and the Good Life
Dan Edelstein (French and Italian)

Academic study was once concerned with a single question: what is the best way to live our lives? What values should we privilege over others? Today we often assume that our value choices are personal. But many teachers in Antiquity (and beyond) thought that these choices should to be debated, and that formal education was the place to think them through. In this class, we ask questions about “the good life,” but we also consider whether college is still designed to raise such questions. We will read thought-provoking, influential texts from Antiquity and modern times. This course satisfies the Aesthetic and Interpretative Way (AII).