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A few thoughts on the New Yorker piece

East Egg has never quite understood West Egg, and the ancien régime has never quite understood revolution. As with America, so also with Stanford.

As the United States developed into an industrial and economic powerhouse over the course of the 19th century, European intellectual circles responded with a condescending derision born of the fear that the Old World would be overtaken and rendered irrelevant. American scientific and civilizational advance was met with accusations that Americans were uncultured, unduly focused on technological development at the expense of refinement and propriety, and coarsely thumbed their dirty peasant noses at art and literature while heedlessly pursuing monetary gain.

“The American knows nothing,” wrote German poet Nikolaus Lenau in 1833; “he seeks nothing but money.” Heinrich Heine lamented the very existence of America, “that pig-pen of Freedom/Inhabited by boors living in equality.” Heidegger lambasted the U.S. in 1935 as a land of “dreary technological frenzy.” And the American spirit of commerce, fretted Nietzsche, was “spreading a spiritual emptiness over the continent.”

But America, of course, had its Mark Twains and F. Scott Fitzgeralds as surely as it did its Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, celebrated its Thoreaus and Emersons as surely as its Remingtons and Carnegies. Industry, though perhaps the engine of American prosperity, was never this country’s only or highest calling – and those who asserted otherwise undoubtedly missed the bigger picture.

So heads-up, Stanford: Lenau, Heine, Heidegger, and Nietzsche are back in town, and they’re writing for the New Yorker. But this time it’s not America being questioned, it’s our University. And this time, it’s not the dusty old scribblers of Europe secretly wishing they were on the other side of the Atlantic; it’s the East Coast cultural establishment that’s missed the train out West.

In a widely debated April 8th post on the New Yorker blog, Nicholas Thompson argues that Stanford isn’t even really a University; it’s “a giant tech incubator with a football team” where students feel pressured to “drop out in an effort to get rich fast.” Building on the premise established in fellow New Yorker writer Ken Auletta’s controversial portrayal of Stanford as “Get Rich U.,” Mr. Thompson (perhaps unwittingly) joins a venerable intellectual tradition of old money fretting about the energetic nouveau riche, of the archaic guardians of hidebound privilege worrying about the perils of creative destruction. Some snobby New Yorker commenters even jumped on the anti-Stanford bandwagon: “When one lacks personality, charisma, looks and charm,” sniffed one aristocrat who has obviously never had the good fortune to catch a glimpse of PoliSci professor Rob Reich, “a pile of money can be that soft place for them to fall.”

I don’t want to be too hard on Mr. Thompson. “The End of Stanford?” is a short blog piece, not a print article, and having written my own fair share of pieces I now fervently wish had never gone to print, I know that writers can occasionally churn something out to meet deadline that isn’t representative of their outlook as a whole. As a Stanford alum, I’m sure Mr. Thompson means well (I corresponded with him about Mr. Auletta’s piece last year and believe him to be a good guy and loyal alum), and I don’t think his piece quite deserves the level of outrage it’s sparked on campus. I also think he’s driving at a seriously important point: what is, and what should be, the purpose of a Stanford education? Is career success enough? (Hint: it isn’t.) Where and to which departments should greater funding be allocated? Do the majority of startups create meaningful social value, or just diversionary flashes of light on iPhone screens and piles of wasted programming talent?

But despite all this, I think Mr. Thompson’s piece deserves deeper examination, and that it largely misses the mark at which it aims.

First and most basically, the “Get Rich U.” stereotype simply doesn’t hold up under closer empirical scrutiny. Stanford’s Humanities disciplines were ranked #1 in the world by the London Times’ Higher Education Supplement, and as Kristi over at The Unofficial Stanford Blog pointed out, our individual social science/humanities departments (among them Psychology, English, Economics, Political Science, Sociology, and my very own History department) regularly receive top U.S. News and World Report rankings. We just built an elegant $50 million-dollar concert hall, enjoy an absolutely gorgeous (and free to the public) art museum, and Professor of English Ramón Saldívar won the National Humanities Medal last year. I can list Stanford’s MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipients (including a well-deserved win by History professor Richard White), Nobel Prize winners, and former Council of Economic Advisers chairmen off the top of my head. The d.school (and Stanford’s countless interdisciplinary majors) interweave the rigor of technical study with the élan of the social sciences and humanities, all in the service of solving tough problems that defy narrow specialization. (Professor White, for instance, leads a project called the Spatial History Lab that connects “data analysis and complex visualization graphical algorithms with traditional historical sources” in order to examine “historic perceptions of space in the newly settled American West.”) And as for Mr. Thompson’s slight on the intelligence of Stanford student-athletes – well, let’s just not go there.

So it’s clear from the numbers that we’re a lot more than just a “a giant tech incubator with a football team.” But I think there’s a larger, more important problem here: the New Yorker appears to mistake Stanford’s focus on high-return economic ventures for the fundamental core of its strength, rather than one of many results of that strength. That is an immensely reductive error, and Mr. Thompson, as a Stanford alum, must know better. Startups and entrepreneurialism are quite clearly symptoms, rather than the sole cause, of the unique ethos that makes Stanford what it is.

Here are the ingredients of that special sauce that, at least in my experience, makes Stanford singular:

People here tend to be (at least compared to students at other top schools) unorthodox yet hardworking, irreverent but driven, not afraid to make mistakes, adaptable, creative, interdisciplinary, and happier than most to define themselves by alternative metrics of success. (You also, of course, get the pre-med and pre-law kids who plow themselves into a set career path from day one, but a) every major research university has those and b) society needs zealous doctors and lawyers, so more power to you!). Combine that uniquely flexible esprit de corps with brilliant intellects from all over the world and an encompassing economic framework that rewards disruptive innovation, and sure, you often get explosive Silicon Valley success.

But you also get playwrights, hippies, politicians who dream big and think outside the box; you get Band Run; you get the friend of mine who wrote a hilarious senior thesis on the ethics of satire, is now at Yale Law School, and will probably end up a Supreme Court Justice; you get the John Nash-esque math genius who also designs puzzles for the weekly campus humor paper. Our students come from all walks of life and throw themselves into all sorts of tasks, from activism (take a look at any STATIC post) to politics to engineering to computer science (and sometimes everything at once).

All this is part of why I believe so strongly that Stanford’s many oddities and quirks, from student-run dining to runs through the library, need protection. Because Stanford’s success is inextricably entangled with the little things that help keep us weird.

By Ivy standards, Stanford is a young and unfettered school, much as by European standards, America is a young and unfettered nation. Youth brings strength. It disdains outdated traditions, breaks barriers, doesn’t write letters like this one, dreams and is dreamed of, draws the envy of the old and worn. Sure, all that can mean Clinkle; it can also mean Cory Booker.

Stanford is often grouped with the Ivies on the basis of average entering test scores, endowments, influential alumni, research funding. Well, I don’t agree. Stanford moves too fast for encrusting tendrils of ivy to creep over its walls and ensnarl the engines of progress that hum eternally beneath the sandstone. The “College of the West,” wrote David Starr Jordan in 1904, is home to no “dewy-eyed monk,” no “stoop-shouldered grammarian.” The true Stanford scholar, he predicted, would be the “leader of enterprise, the builder of states.”

And in the end, with national unemployment hovering at 7.6% and budget deficits looming ominously, what’s wrong with celebrating ties to industry, technology, progress? What’s intrinsically wrong with pioneering high-caliber online education for those who can’t afford a college degree? We raised a billion dollars last year – more than any university in history, largely thanks to our alumni network’s financial success, much of it sourced from startups and Silicon Valley – and a great deal of that is going to fund medical research and innovation at Stanford Hospitals and Clinics. Money may not be everything, but it sure helps when you’re trying to cure cancer.

So I’d urge you, New Yorker editors, to spend some time rethinking your position. Stanford may not look or act like the traditional university – but no matter what happens, this school will still be here, forging the future. And I’ll be here in the sun, thankful to be a part of this place and forever proud to call myself a member of the Stanford community.

Cheers.

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