ESF Courses


  • 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 PWR requirement. 
  • Enrollment options: For ESF students, staring Aug. 3 at 8:00 a.m. PST, all enrollment changes can be made using this form. For non-ESF students, you may enroll in ESF 50 to receive one unit for attending all lectures. 

ESF Seminar Descriptions

ESF 1: The Active, Inquiring, Beautiful Life 

Instructors: Blair Hoxby (English), Caroline Hoxby (Economics)

Moving through history from the Rome of the Emperor Hadrian, to the city-states of Renaissance Italy, to the newly founded republic of the United States, we will examine how self-made men fashioned themselves and their surroundings by educating themselves broadly.  We will ask how a liberal education made their active careers richer and more transformational.  Authors may include Marcus Aurelius, Marguerite Yourcenar, Baldassare Castiglione, Raphael, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, and Cardinal Newman.  We will also take up the great debate on whether a liberal education or vocational training is the surest path to advancement.  We will engage this debate through the works of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington but also take it up to today's struggle over the same issues— a struggle which engrosses both highly industrialized and developing societies.


ESF 2: The German Tradition of Bildung or How to Become a Global Citizen

Instructor: Kathryn Starkey (German)

This course considers education not as training in external knowledge or skills but as a lifelong process of development and growth in which an individual cultivates her or his spiritual, cultural and social sensibilities. This concept of education — education as a formative and transformative process in the development of the self—is called Bildung in German and has a long tradition reaching back to the Middle Ages. The term first appears in the writings of the mystic Meister Eckhart who defines it as self-composure which he regards as a crucial stage in our spiritual development. The concept of Bildung takes on a secular meaning in the Reformation, when Ulrich von Hutten first coined the phrase that has become Stanford’s  motto: “Die  Luft  der  Freiheit  weht” (“The  wind  of  freedom  is  blowing.”).  


ESF 6: The Wind of Freedom

Instructor: 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.


ESF 7: The Transformation of the Self

Instructor: Andrea Nightingale (Classics)

Socrates famoulsy 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 thus set out to transform themselves to achieve a good and happy life. What is the good life? How do we change ourselves to live a good and happy life? How do literature and philosophy help us to understand ourselves and to achieve our social, ethical, and personal ideals? In this class, we examine the lives and ideas of Socrates and Augustine. Both struggled to live a good and happy life. Both urged people to transform themselves into better human beings. 


ESF 8: Recognizing the Self and Its Possibilites

Instructor: 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.

ESF 9: Chinese Traditions of the Self

Instructor: Ron Egan (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

How do ideas take shape in a civilization that developed without any significant contact with the “West”? What do concepts of education and self-improvement look like in a land that had no knowledge of Judeo-Christian or Classical Western traditions? In this class we explore thinking about the self and its cultivation that took root and flourished in China. Chinese civilization was centrally concerned with issues of the self, but it developed methods and ideals of cultivation that have no obvious parallel in the European tradition. We will be concerned primarily with two clusters of Chinese thought and expression. First, we will look at major philosophical traditions (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism) to see how they structured thinking about education and self-cultivation. The three “schools” of thought staked out different ideals for the self that provided China with range and flexibility in concepts of personhood. Second, we will examine Chinese aesthetic traditions, especially those of qin music, calligraphy and painting, to understand how the arts were used as a platform for self-cultivation and to communicate the artist’s essential nature to others. The course also gives attention to the gendering of concepts of the self and to the tradition of martial arts as self-discipline and self-strengthening. Students should emerge from the course with an understanding of how a major civilization located outside Western traditions developed its own answers to these questions of universal human concern.


ESF 10: Unintended Consequences

Instructor: Margo Gerritsen (Energy Resources Engineering)

Unintended consequences are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and/or intended by a new product, action or decision. Some unintended outcomes are very surprising, and would have been hard to predict. Others seem completely logical in hindsight and leave people wondering why they were not anticipated. For instance, when the first biofuel mandates were imposed in the EU, little did policy makers realize it would lead to a rise in palm oil production, which in turn led to tropical deforestation, undoing any of the possible positive impacts of increased biofuels use. In hindsight it is easy to see this potential negative impact, yet at the time the decision was made, the EU leadership was blind to it. Drawing on all Stanford's liberal education has to offer, we will then together predict utcomes of new and controversial ideas.