Students tend to scoff at the word “participation,” especially when it’s written on a syllabus with a big percentage of their grade. But it is, in math, English, language, biology and chemistry, a profoundly good thing. We have a tendency, we freshmen, to disparage it, perhaps because we feel just a touch too self-assured, too comfortable in the belief that we already have the material under control. Participation is often written off as useless, an unnecessary accessory. Why do we need to talk if we can simply learn this on our own? We can all pass the tests, get the grades and get degrees without paying lip service to professors.
The fundamental truth about college is that you will not use, or even remember, much of what you learn. However, the intention of the powers that be is that you develop some general skills along with the knowledge you retain. Those skills are the most important draws from your college experience, I’d say, with proper keg-stand and beer pong technique close behind.
When we lend our voices into class, to question or raise concerns, to poke holes in an argument or force teachers to justify their studies, we exercise a muscle that will serve us our entire lives long. What critical participation does is hone systems for processing information and, from it, creating belief. Instead of just being a vessel for test- and essay-applicable knowledge, engaging with material critically allows you to not only individualize the message you get from it, but ensure it is one that fits in your own worldview. If it doesn’t, and it often won’t, it will help you improve and expand your perspective. It’s this sort of critical participation that, in written form, is the Socratic dialogue that scholarship exists in.
But that questioning, that critical eye, needs to extend beyond the classroom, especially here at Stanford. Leading universities’ administrative decisions have echoes and imitators across the academic world, and Stanford is no exception. The school, currently grappling with budget pressures forcing it to choose what it considers important, i.e. financial aid or research and the possible reversal of the 1973 abandonment of ROTC, often leads trends in American universities. What this means for students is that our advocacy here at Stanford can drive change across college campuses. This in turn can influence national politics and change the opinions of progressive people across the nation.
There are, whether we’re aware of it or not, debates going on behind the scenes about University procedures. ROTC, policies concerning athletic admissions and IHUM are not only on the table for discussion, but are fundamentally changeable. The current review of IHUM is a perfect example; students spoke, reviews were initiated. We should feel free to question University institutions, whether they are morally or pragmatically good, or whether they contribute to Stanford in a positive way.
Jacob Bronowski, a famous mathematician, said, “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; They are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” This attitude, that of the critical participant, is one that we should take beyond the classroom. Do not be a bystander, or worse, a sycophant to convention.
Many of our parents were baby boomers, a generation whose aggressive questioning culminated in some incredible acts (for example, the 1968 burning down of Stanford’s ROTC building). The accusation that we don’t care about much other than material goods and transparent, selfish philanthropy is often leveled at our generation. We should strive to be principled, and not just when we’re talking about human rights abroad or obvious inequities in far-flung countries. Don’t instinctively move your critical tendencies to obvious, unambiguous targets. Use them in everyday life. We need to bring our ideals home, and that’s most important when they’re controversial. Pursue them with a little more care than our forbearers did. (For legal reasons, I’m going to make it clear that I’m not advocating arson or destruction of University property in anything’s name.)
Now that I’ve made all you young people iconoclasts, there should be no shame in challenging existing ideas. That’s how political systems improve. Even when you agree with an idea or a party, don’t be afraid to question it and make people explain themselves. Don’t let politeness get in the way of pursuing the right, and never accept a policy or stance that isn’t justified.
But, whatever. I’m mostly writing this because section gets awkward when no one talks…
Feeling motivated? E-mail Spencer at [email protected]