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 1/1A: The Active, Inquiring, Beautiful Life 

Instructors: Blair Hoxby, English

See schedule in ExploreCourses

ESF 1/1A Syllabus

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 3/3A: How to be a Public Intellectual

Instructor: Dan Edelstein, French and Italian

See schedule in ExploreCourses

ESF 3/3A syllabus

Can education impart more than bookish learning?  This is the question that critics have posed since the European Renaissance.  Through their reflections, these critics posited an alternative ideal of education that prepared the student for life outside the academy.  Over the centuries, this ideal would evolve into what we would today call an “intellectual” — but this modern concept only captures a part of what earlier writers thought learning could achieve.  In this course, we will focus on how education can prepare students to engage in public debates and the role that the university can play in public learning.

ESF 6/6A: The Wind of Freedom

Instructor: Robert Harrison, French and Italian

See schedule in ExploreCourses

ESF 6/6A Syllabus

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 7/7A: The Transformation of the Self

Instructor: Andrea Nightingale, Classics

See schedule in ExploreCourses

ESF 7/7A Syllabus

Socrates famously 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. The first half of the course focusses on the Athenian Socrates (as represented by Plato). Socrates rejected traditional Greek ideals and proclaimed a new kind of ethical goodness; he was put to death by the Athenians for proclaiming these radical ideas. The second half focuses on the North African Augustine, an unhappy soul who became a “new man” by converting to Christianity. These thinkers addressed questions and problems that we still confront today: What are the ingredients of a happy life? Do we need to be good and ethical people to live happily? Is there one correct set of values? How do we accommodate other people’s beliefs? Is it possible to experience a transformation of the self? How do we change ourselves to achieve our higher ideals?

ESF 9/9A: Chinese Traditions of the Self

Instructor: Ron Egan, East Asian Languages and Cultures

See schedule in ExploreCourses

ESF 9/9A Syllabus

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.