When I heard that William Deresiewicz, author of “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” was coming to speak at Stanford, I could not have been more excited. The 2008 article, which one of my dorm staff sent to our mailing list early fall quarter, has prompted me to think a lot about what it means to be at Stanford, receiving a “Stanford education” and whether or not I am truly challenging myself to become a serious thinker and productive member of society.
In his article and conversation, Deresiewicz describes the growing sense of entitlement that students (specifically Ivy League students in the article, but in actuality students from any “elite” university) have towards future success and high paying jobs. This expectation stems from the grade inflation, pampering and seclusion from the rest of society that these institutions promote. Deresiewicz points out that the point of such institutions is to “manufacture” alumni, who continue to support the system. Because these systems need money, the University seeks to train its “products” for high-paying professional jobs, hence the entitlement. What the University does not do is teach its students to ask “the big questions.” Instead, it teaches us to think in a way that is suited for Wall Street, for med school, for law school, etc., as Deresiewicz said in his talk. This creates a system in which students are academically specialized and extracurricular-ly accomplished, but have no opinions; in which doing something we’re passionate about is not as important as doing something that will secure us success; and a system in which the value of a liberal education in the humanities is declining.
Recognizing that I am a member of one such system, though one that I — and I think Deresiewicz would agree — does not suffer from these symptoms as much as our peers on the East Coast (hooray “entrepreneurial spirit!”), I would like to address my own assessment of the problems, as I have experienced or perceived them. I definitely feel pressure to follow a track: to win a prestigious grant or fellowship, to graduate within four years, to go to Law School, to get a high paying job. These pressures are not the result of familial expectations; they simply seem to be the “logical” progression for one who is interested in government or law and wants to live “happily ever after.” Grad school seems to be the mindless cop-out for those of us who don’t know what we want to do with our lives, except that we want to make money. I also feel social pressure to study something “useful.” Ideally, I would major in American Studies, spend senior year watching all of American TV shows of the 2000s and extracting a cultural narrative from it through which to view the world around me. But who is that useful to? Deresiewicz argued that it’s useful to us to follow things we’re passionate about. And that there’s no reason living “happily ever after” shouldn’t mean living in a decent sized home with an average income and doing what we love. And while I’m passionate about our culture and society, how we will be perceived and where we’re headed, some obscure thesis about the implications of [insert scholarly word] in [insert century] seems more “marketable.”
Maybe it’s because I’m reading Marx right now that I’m feeling so fed up with “the system,” but this sensation itself is indicative of what I think would satisfy many of Deresiewicz’s complaints, and what I think is redeeming about undergraduate education at Stanford: Structured Liberal Education (SLE).
SLE is the most rewarding intellectual and personal experience I’ve undergone — and it’s not ever over yet! With two full quarters of the “great thinkers” behind me, and with seven weeks of influential modern thought ahead, I find myself asking “the big questions” every day. This past week, I’ve been having issues over what it means to be human, whether or not I can understand inherently who I am (and if I’m even close to doing so) and why we need to have so much social and governmental interference in our individual lives. This introspection is not a recent phenomenon — my roommate, dormmates and I have been having conversations around questions like these all year.
Structurally, SLE eliminates most of the issues I see in the University: we don’t receive grades until the end of each quarter, which reduces immediate competition and makes the focus on the learning process; we receive immeasurable writing support, in the form of writing tutors (SLE alumni) who must meet with us for each paper and “paper conferences” in which we discuss the strengths and weaknesses of our papers with our section leaders (this replaces the immediate grade); it is a yearlong program, encouraging both breadth and depth — we are taking our time to think about the world from multiple standpoints before we start to specialize in a field; and we are passionate about what we’re learning. I can speak for most of us when I say that I love SLE.
What I am dreading is the notion that I will not be able to immerse myself in such a stimulating academic environment after SLE, and that even if I find such a program, I won’t be surrounded by students who are as passionate about it as SLE students are. What is also distressing is that only 5 percent of the undergraduate population can experience SLE.
My solutions to the issues Deresiewicz raised are brief: create more programs like SLE, which the University is considering; offer SLE in its current curriculum to upperclassmen who wish to take it (for I do hear “Oh, I wish I did SLE” often, despite all the flak SLE gets); and offer higher levels of SLE to SLE alumni who wish to continue a liberal education.
Ideally, the University would mandate that all students take a year off while undergraduates, not give grades, and allow students to take as much time as they wanted to explore general fields before graduating, but for the time being, this seems like the most feasible means to creating a more personally valuable experience for the undergraduate community.
If you would like to say more than “SLE sucks!” and/or discuss collegiate elitism, email Kristian at kbailey ‘at’ stanford.edu.