Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation

Why College? Your Education and the Good Life

Main content start

You’re about to embark on an amazing journey: a college education. But what is the purpose of this journey? Why go to college? How is education related to the good life?

student writing on a glass mirror that reflects her image back at her

What makes this course unique:

This course asks you to reflect on the place and purpose of college in your life. You will be prompted to examine your own life, to question how and why certain decisions about your education were made. So: what kind of person do you want to be? What kind of life will you live? Join us as we explore what others have said about these questions and prepare to answer them for yourself.

Course Description

Some argue that the purpose of higher education is to train you for a career. Others claim that college is no longer necessary—that you can launch the next big startup and change the world without a degree. In the face of such critiques, this class makes a case for an expansive education that has traditionally been called “liberal education” (from the Latin word for freedom, libertas). Together we will explore the history, practice, and rationales for a liberal education by putting canonical texts in conversation with more recent works. We will consider the relevance of liberal education to all areas of study, from STEM to the arts, and its relations to future careers. And we will examine the central place that the idea of “the good life” has historically enjoyed in theories of liberal education. This course satisfies the Aesthetic and Interpretive Inquiry Way (AII).

Inside the Why College Seminar

Special Events

COLLEGE 101 will read the Third Book as part of the class, still to be announced. In Autumn 2021, the Third Book speaker was Tara Westover.

All frosh will be invited to the First Lecture to hear from Ge Wang, Professor of Music and (by courtesy) Computer Science. Ge is the author of Artful Design, "a manifesto of how we shape technology, and a meditation on how technology shapes us in turn."

Sample Assignment: Commonplace Book

What is a commonplace book? It's a document into which you transcribe notable quotations--sentences or passages from our assigned readings that you found particularly important or inspiring. You'll use the commonplace book to record important ideas you want to remember and return to or use later; to record sentences whose composition and style you admire; to make connections between what you are reading in this class and what you are encountering elsewhere (through reading, conversation, etc.); and to make your reading your own: you decide what is important; and when you select and transcribe it, you review and reflect on it, transforming its meaning.

In Why College?, you will read texts including:

  • W.E.B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk
  • Tstitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions
  • Jiddu Krishnamurti, Think on These Things
  • Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing
  • Zadie Smith, "Some Notes on Attunement"


COLLEGE 101: Why College? Your Education and the Good Life is 3 units and meets 2x/week for 80 minutes. It satisfies Way-A-II. See ExploreCourses for detailed schedule offerings (to be updated in mid-August).

Who's Teaching You?

In addition to all of our COLLEGE Teaching Fellows, faculty from around the university will offer a Why College? seminar.

  • Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, Freeman-Thornton Chair for the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Professor of Physics
  • Undergraduate Advising Director
  • Undergraduate Advising Director
  • Provost, James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor and Professor in the School of Engineering, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Professor of Physics
  • William H. Bonsall Professor of French and Professor, by courtesy, of History and of Political Science
  • Stanford W. Ascherman, M.D. Professor
  • Ernest R. Hilgard Professor, Professor of Psychology and, by courtesy, of Philosophy
  • Assistant Professor of English and, by courtesy, of Comparative Literature
  • Walter A. Haas Professor of the Humanities and Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures and of Comparative Literature
  • Lead Undergraduate Advising Director
  • Carl and Marilynn Thoma Provostial Professor of the Arts and Humanities and Professor, by courtesy, of English
  • Lecturer
  • Associate Professor of Classics and, by courtesy, of Comparative Literature
  • Associate Vice Provost, Director of Stanford Introductory Studies
  • Senior Lecturer of English
  • Professor of Radiology (Neuroimaging and Neurointervention)