I ran into an old friend from my freshman dorm a couple weeks ago. I remember her from our freshman year as one of the most interesting people to talk to: artistic, curious about ideas and eager to engage with her peers. When we saw each other, she commented on the intellectual atmosphere she had expected to find when she came to Stanford, as if it would be a Mecca of students fascinated by ideas and eager to explore. Instead, she found a population that was predominantly concerned with grades and strategic planning, a student body who preferred to spend their free time going to parties, watching Youtube videos, playing Rock Band and doing other fun but mindless activities. These were broad generalizations, but they are generally true.
This column is no indictment of “mindless activities”–letting loose once in a while is especially important for students who are, by default, busy and stressed. But it’s true that our student body is, by and large, risk-averse and anti-intellectual. We fail to see where wrestling with tough questions and big ideas will get us in life. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it in his column last week, students at elite schools today are “prudential rather than poetic.”
As I was mulling over these thoughts, someone sent me a beautiful commencement speech titled “Solitude and Leadership” that was given by former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz to West Point graduates last year. It is impossible for me to do it justice in a single column, but here are some ideas Deresiewicz lays out:
Deresiewicz argues that students at places like Stanford are strategic hoop-jumping multi-taskers. He says that our jam-packed lives and the cacophony of information we receive from Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and even news sites leave no room for us to hear our own voice. We have no solitude.
Solitude, according to Deresiewicz, is about introspection, concentration, sustained reading and deep friendship. It is about slowing down and making time to form our own ideas. It is about wrestling with powerful ideas in a great book, ideas that broke with contemporary habits of thought when the book was written and still challenge us today. It is about intimate conversation with someone we trust where we can articulate questions we would rather not acknowledge having, where we can think out loud and discover what we believe in the course of articulating it. Solitude is how we develop self-knowledge.
Stanford students already tend to have two kinds of pseudo self-knowledge. On the one hand, most of us spend some time thinking about what identity clubs we belong to, where we fit within the categories of culture, religion, race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. On the other hand, students are idealistic and extremely impassioned about issues in the political world. We seem to know what is important to us. But I do not think either of these types of self-awareness reflects the kind of self-knowledge Deresiewicz is talking about.
Meaningful self-knowledge involves serious examination and conscious endorsement of values. It is found after rubbing up against powerful intellectual ideas and taking on the strongest arguments of those around you. Beliefs that we develop by conforming, by being swept away in the drift of opinions that envelop us in classrooms and dorms and on Facebook and Twitter, are not our own. We figure out where we stand and what is important to us by wrestling with targeted questions in solitude.
Our lack of value for thinking in solitude is not entirely our fault. We live in a system where we have to be somewhat strategic to get the chance to make a big difference. Indeed, a pragmatic outlook is probably more essential than deep intellectualism to getting into Stanford. But life is about responsibilities, which demand more than the ability to get ahead. Real responsibility, where the welfare of others is in our hands, calls for independent thinkers with deeply considered values. What we don’t see in Wall Street or Washington today are people who have spent a lot of time alone with their thoughts and the best thoughts of others. They are not able to turn us in a new direction when we are headed off cliffs.
I recently read a book by Evelyn Waugh, “Brideshead Revisited,” in which one of the characters spends his life maneuvering and schmoozing to rise to heights in politics and society. A couple years into his marriage, his wife comes to realize that he “isn’t a real person at all”, just “a few faculties of a man highly developed.” He has no foundation of values–he hasn’t considered what he is really about. Thinking in complex ways, grappling with ambiguity to work out where we stand, is how we figure out who we are. Students are increasingly eschewing this kind of self-discovery. What we end up with are highly impressive technocrats, star graduates with several developed faculties, but no real core.
Aysha is sorry to be a downer this week! Send her your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.