The wind of freedom wanes

This past summer, I had the pleasure to attend a play in a derelict Berlin park put on by a local Shakespeare company. I picked up bits and pieces of the plot from the acting, but as far as understanding the words, it may as well have been Euripides. Of the few words I did catch, one stood out: Freiheit. Freedom. The actor, playing some utopian visionary, had one speech where Freiheit was said at least a dozen times. Freiheit. Freedom. In a public park filled with punks doing drugs while little kids kicked soccer balls feet away, the word was all too fitting.

Freedom is why I came to Stanford. Yes, the academics are top notch and the campus is stunning. But going into Admit Weekend, I wasn’t sure I’d fit in. My doubts soon disappeared: I saw students kicking back in the Claw; condoms tossed up in the air during the activities fair; the band jamming around MemAud fountain; a student walking into an ME class wearing pajamas, turning in his PSET, and turning right back around out the door; my (underage) RoHo having a shelf stacked with hard liquor and one of the gates from an RF parking space displayed proudly on the wall.

I loved it. The “I’ll do whatever the fuck I want” spirit and a faculty and staff that, from all appearances, embraced it. Not to say I was, or am, a rebel. But what I saw was a place where students could, amidst all the work, explore and express themselves as they saw fit. Where the future politicians and doctors and entrepreneurs of tomorrow could fuck around today.

Now? This campus seems more stifling with every passing week. Off the top of my head, here’s a list of notable student freedoms eliminated in the four years I have been here: alcohol in row houses can no longer be bought with social dues, campus police have cracked down on bike lights, the Nomad party is no more, XOX lost its lease, hard liquor was prohibited during summer session, the band has been under alcohol suspension, student-run eating clubs have vanished, a nonprofit food truck has been twice kicked off campus, double booked schedules will soon be forbidden, and probably a gazillion other things I don’t know about. And just the other night, residents from Columbae were prevented by police from streaking through Green Library. A harmless activity, halted by armed authorities at the request of university staff. Good grief!

The sad thing is, student freedoms have long been targeted by the powers that be. There may be an outcry, but when these students graduate the struggles that once were are soon forgotten. What was once inconceivable becomes the norm. Give the administration twenty more years along this trajectory, and I can only wonder what the university that I hold dear will become.

Why? Why does the university continue to worship order and conformity, even if just to uphold an inconsequential food truck policy?

Efficiency is likely one justification. In theory, the more uniform Stanford is, the cheaper it can be run. So all walls are painted the same off-white color, all row dining services are contracted to the same vendor, all staffs are hired through ResEd, all food trucks operate through Off the Grid. But maintaining uniformity requires considerable overhead, a fact which seems to be lost on members of this administration. Judging by ever increasing tuition and room and board, operations were undoubtedly far cheaper years ago than they are today. I wonder, though, if the product we receive now is that much, if at all, superior to what alumni received during their time here.

Another oft-cited reason for reducing student freedoms is safety; freedom means students are free to take risks, risks can lead to damage, and damage can lead to bad publicity and lawsuits. If we want to be safe, then, freedoms must be sacrificed. Yet as Benjamin Franklin so wisely said, “he who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.” Or, as I often note, the safest society is one in which everyone is locked in a private jail cell with padded walls.

There must be a point, then, at which our commitment to community and freedom trumps safety concerns. I would argue that Stanford passed that point years ago. Of course, administrators would likely respond that they are legitimately concerned with student well-being. Well-being transcends the visible, though, and giving students room to breathe and run naked through libraries can be as important to student health as, say, preventing alcohol abuse.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll say it right now: I’m guilty of this safety-first mindset too. Last year as a freshman RA, I probably stifled my residents’ freedom one too many times in the name of preventing alcohol poisoning. It’s what I was told to do. It’s what I was told was best for the freshman. My experiences as an RA then are why I don’t blame individual administrators for their actions now. I’ve interacted with some of them and generally have had positive impressions. I just think they’re caught in a system that has lost sight of what is truly important.

All this safety and efficiency talk, I’m damn tired of it. The safer we are, the less free we are to explore and take risks. The more efficient (read: uniform) this campus is, the less opportunity for free expression. While these complaints may seem inconsequential, remember that the values students have now are the ones that will carry the day tomorrow. Should we be surprised that our senior class presidents invited Mayor Bloomberg to speak at commencement? A man who values freedom about as much as Tiger Woods values monogamy, invited to spew his ideals to a group of listeners all too eager to soak up his wisdom.

While freedom may just be a buzzword to you, to me it means much more. Freedom is when other people trust me to not fuck up and drive off a cliff. It is the opportunity for me to lose myself, find myself, explore myself, express myself, and engage myself, then lose myself all over again. I may not come out clean and fresh, but I sure as hell enjoyed the ride and probably learned a few things along the way.

Stanford University, please to God remember your motto! Die Luft der Freiheit weht – THE WIND OF FREEDOM BLOWS!

Yesterday marked the end of winter. Oh, powers that be, it’s high time to do some spring cleaning and throw out the fetters that prevent us students from running naked through libraries and running our residential experiences and running our lives! While you’re at it, might I suggest you pull out the Oxi-Clean, grab a rag, and scrub off the grime that presently obscures the first three words of our sacred motto. It’s been in want of a good washing for years now.

How do you feel about these happenings? Email Adam at adamj11@stanford.edu.

About Adam Johnson

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.
  • AntiSlice

    The band was threatened with arrest by the head librarian a few years ago if they showed up to do the traditional* finals week library rally. So I’m not entirely unsurprised that this happened.

    *Traditional until then. I don’t think it’s happened since 2009.

  • John

    Anyone interested in doing a protest over the break? Basically, we can draw a big red circle in front of memchu, call it “the red zone,” and protest the loss of student freedom with eccentric behaviors and displays of free-spirithood while inside the circle.

  • Alumninum

    What is needed much more than protest is expanded assertion of freedom. It may even come to a willingness to be arrested streaking or playing with the LSJUMB at the library. There is an invisible an every changing “free social space” in which students live and move. In recent years, the administrators have been invading that free space, and students have not defended their boundaries effectively. The most effective way to reclaim free social space is to act freely, despite the fear of reprisals. For the long term, students need to come up with policy and forms of organization that allow them to assert as a community what freedom they wish to have at Stanford. They need to say, “Here are the boundaries across which the administration may not cross”, they need to make an inventory of actions available to take should the administration cross such boundaries, and they need to have a plan to get the administration to agree to the negotiated boundaries.

  • lolz

    Ehh, not sure id want to be bothered by streakers while studying during finals week…

  • Irritated

    Oh I’m so sorry that having to use a bike light is impinging on your rights. Why don’t you experience the real absence of freedom. Maybe then you’ll realize how good you have it and stop being such a brat.

  • Snoopy

    It’s hard to disagree with Adam. Liberation can and should take place at any level of civil society. There is always more to be done, and I find it hard to believe that any of the actions the University has taken have in any way helped achieve a greater freedom for its constituents. Whose freedoms do a nudist with chocolate covered raisins infringe upon? All I see are more and more unhappy students, workers that are treated poorer and poorer, and a technocratic curriculum that is orienting itself further and further away from humanity and ethics.

    Risk taking and experimentation are near the heart of a college experience – and life experience in general. Streaking in a library – while surely odd to some – goes hand in hand with speaking up in class, having the guts to question yourself, and choosing to study what you are passionate about regardless of financial gain and status – and all these things lead towards a student’s (and I would argue society’s) intellectual liberation through critical thought and exploration.

    However, in the neoliberal paradise of Stanford, today we are increasingly taught to confuse “Freedom” with what can be achieved within markets and learn that the only “Risks” now worth taking are those that involve capital investments and borrowing for your next start-up. While this may be a “safe” route for Stanford and its endowment, I have a hard time trusting that this won’t eventually steer us all off a cliff, Stanford and the world included, of ignorance and consumption.

  • Fabio

    study in your room. lots of students do it. That way you can use your desk fan.

  • peon

    Please, describe to me oh holy one… what is this “real” absence of freedom of which you speaketh, irritated? And tell us, how shall we help them attain their freedom!

  • The Warm Weather Party

    Winter is ending. Bring back the Warm Weather.

  • Freedom Fighter

    Also notable, I believe, is a much much much much much much much much much much much much much much much higher authority presence overall at all times of the day: I swear every day every where I see campus police loitering around instilling “the peace” that unruly Stanford so greatly needs! They are frickin everywhere, there didn’t use to be so many cops everywhere. Why do we need so many cops and community service officers trolling all over campus? I think we already had one of the nicest and safest campuses around crime wise, why do these cops need to be everywhere? Its beginning to feel like a police state out there. Damnit youve got three cop cars and a community service vehicle chilling in front of roble doing nothing but cracking down on bike light bad boys? Give me a break. They must be bored to death, and it really just feels stifling for us students. Were not doing anything wrong, why are we being watched like hawks? Good grief!

  • Freedom Fighter

    I never go a day without seeing at least a bajillion cop cars everywhere on campus. What the hell is up with that? Go fight some real crime.

  • lkjljk

    Aluminum is absolutely right. Students lose freedom as long as we can be pushed around.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Who cares if Stanford is making the school more boring and uniform. If you want to be a rebel right now, you probably shouldn’t go to a major university, which are by nature bureaucratic institutions that function best when creativity is stifled and lifestyle is homogenized. Come to Stanford for the academics, athletics, extra-curricular activities, research, career ops and research which this university clearly excels at. If you can’t find enough enrichment with that, create a non-affiliated club, or take some time off school. I’m tired of the expectation that Stanford should be a utopia. It’s true that Stanford wrongfully sells this narrative to get people to come here, but let’s all grow up and realize that Stanford is only 4 years of our lives and that we can do all the crazy shit we want to when we graduate. It’s not Stanford’s fault if you need THIS moment to be your experimentation period because you’ve set a timeline for your life that doesn’t allow you live a liberated life later.

  • asd

    THANK YOU. This is my mindset exactly.

  • james

    “and probably a gazillion other things I don’t know about.”

    That sounds like the typical Stanford Daily reporting; one-sided, vastly exaggerated, and lacking in any objectivity. I understand this is an editorial opinion piece, but you should still base an opinion on rational, well-researched facts and not make ridiculously biased statements such as that I have quoted above.

    It seems the Daily writers will do anything to attract attention. Perhaps good for tabloids, not so good for a school newspaper seeking credibility.

  • @James

    You seem like a real blast to hang out with.

  • Alumninum

    JP describes the situation entirely as a matter of “individual lifestyle”. Missing, however, is the entire question of education for leadership. If Stanford is not creating tomorrow’s leaders, then where are they going to come from? If you intend to help bring the world out there to a better place, the best place to start learning is your home for four years. If you can’t make Stanford a better place — if you can’t make Stanford a more free place to live — how in the world do you expect to be able to keep America free, or the world beyond?

  • Andrew

    This is why I stopped donating to Stanford. Not a penny more.

  • Reader

    Great, great op-ed once again. Adam, you write awesome columns that hit the nail on the head. Looking forward to reading more.

  • Alina

    lol, I see a private school kid bummed that their institution is making it more difficult to drink underage . . . however, I think the article reflects a very interesting trend in American’s interpretation of freedoms as the “freedom to be free”—that is, freedom is the absence of regulation. However, Stanford is a private institution and thus has the “freedom” to ban whatever it wants. Even though it seems like it’s limiting freedom, it’s actually exercising the freedom to create the environment it wants (just as all-girls schools have the right to ban males, or I could create a private institution where only unicorns were allowed to live.).
    But yeah, certainly a bummer we’ll have to get bike-lights and remained clothed while in the library.

  • duh

    see china.

  • RR

    stanford raised over a billion last year… i think they can do without your money.

  • RR

    even if the author had other examples to use, we got the point (not to mention, these articles have space limits). really, there are plenty of things to criticize in this article, and you picked that? go home james. go home.