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Dr. Strangelove or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the SLE

Six and a half weeks ago, I trudged, dejected, up the stairs to Faisan, my new residence. Dadaist art adorned the walls. How appropriate for this ridiculous situation, I thought. After missing staff training due to a Stanford TAPS performance in Greece, I had been fired from my staffing position in a house I’d occupied and loved for two years prior. Then I was reassigned to Faisan. My fragile expectations for my “awesome senior year” – Row, staff, single – were abruptly dismantled. Shock therapy: a broken Stanford snowglobe.

But now I think about things differently.

The Structured Liberal Education (SLE) program at Stanford provides a forum for thorough critical engagement unparalleled elsewhere in required undergraduate classes. Though SLE’s not currently a requirement, it absolutely should be – especially for STEM majors who want to truly and deeply consider the implications and ancillary effects of what they are creating. Our undergraduate curriculum does not challenge that part of them. At best, IHUM or Thinking Matters courses engage a few critical minds with a semi-rigorous set of texts – but often, and at worst, they don’t go far enough.

Stanford undergraduates want and deserve better. Most upperclassmen that I talk to didn’t appreciate their humanities requirement because it was not rigorous enough to draw their interest.

Staring out steamy panes of glass in winter malaise, I’d often wonder why I itched with discomfort at what surrounded me. Not until very recently did I stop denying that I’d always felt intellectually repressed here.

Allow me to be clear. Any metonymic characterization of “Stanford” is a platitude – one that over-generalizes a complex, semi-cohesive conglomeration of people with very different priorities. In addition to civil engineering courses, I’ve been taking language every quarter: Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. At Pigott Hall, I plant myself in front of one of several colorful bulletin boards wallpapered like spilled tarot cards with posters advertising activities to engage the critical mind. I do this to remind myself that you cannot say “Stanford is anti-intellectual” without sounding like one of the puerile sentence patterns that I was forced to practice to death in intro language courses. You can be as intellectual here as you wish.

At Stanford, however, I have often confronted what I consider profoundly anti-intellectual attitudes. The stigma manifests itself in predictable ways – when I meet somebody new at a party, for example, and they ask where I live.

“Faisan.”

“One of the SLE dorms?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, that sucks.”

But my response now is, invariably, no, it does not suck. It does not prevent me from having a vibrant social life. I love SLE precisely because I have had fantastic intellectual and emotional engagement with my dormmates. Previously, I denigrated the opinions of people younger than me. I belittled their emotions. The freshman residents of Faisan, so willing to critique academia, religion, athletics, have dynamited that prejudice. People disagree with me here, and I am just another opinion.

The thing is, I think that so many of us want that. We want IHUM or Thinking Matters to be better, our conversations to be better. We want to be humbled, our prejudices aired and alleviated. We want to consider varied voices of human wisdom. We want to focus the lens on our very lives: why it might be reprehensible to take a job at, say, a missile manufacturing corporation. Critical analysis really hurts our job prospects.

To seniors, I’d say this: Please stop caring, for a minute, what other people think when you speak with nuance and erudition. I’d love to converse with the you that’s not withholding your intellect.

To Stanford University: Do not purport to provide your students with a thorough liberal education when undergraduate requirements do not fully reflect that project.

And to my freshman dormmates: Thank you for simultaneously exposing my prejudices, engaging me as an intellectual equal and making me feel welcome in our home.

As of yesterday, I have withdrawn my reassignment application and will be living in Faisan – a SLE dorm – for the rest of the year. Sometimes living away from my friends encourages me to go even more out of my way to make sure that I see them, and we don’t take it for granted when we do. I understand that Faisan may not be the place for everybody, but maybe, just maybe, if you’re wrenched from the warm quilt of your comfort zone in your years here, you’ll discover that you love running in the snow.

Taylor Brady ‘13

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