By Debnil Sur
We’ve all heard the numbers: 42,167 applications; 2,138 accepted; 5.07 percent admission rate. The Class of 2018 is just the latest group of eager high school students ready to come to Stanford and explore the California sun, Internet wealth and Silicon Valley’s other opportunities. Indeed, in 2013, the Princeton Review reported that in a survey of college applicants and their parents, Stanford had unseated Harvard as America’s “dream school.”
But what is the dream?
A few weeks ago, my mother emailed me an article that crystallized the allure of Stanford for many. The article, a Bloomberg report titled “Stanford Outstrips Harvard as Applicants Favor Innovation Focus,” showcased high school seniors who explained that Stanford’s emphasis on startups, technology and entrepreneurship helped attract them away from Ivy League schools that seemingly feed people into government and finance-related fields. That was just the latest of many articles that have proclaimed Stanford’s status as a “technology stalwart,” “the intellectual nexus of the information economy,” and, most ignominiously, a “giant tech incubator with a football team.”
Of course, many at Stanford have loudly decried such reports as simply untrue. In many respects, their objections are completely correct.
The popular “Get Rich U” stereotype fails to capture the academic prowess of Stanford’s humanities program — ranked No. 1 in the world by the London Times’ Higher Education Supplement — or U.S. News and World Report’s top rankings for individual humanities/social science departments, such as psychology, English, history and sociology.
It doesn’t explain the supposedly tech-focused administration’s decisions to build an elegant $50 million concert hall or maintain a gorgeous, free art museum, among its other support for the arts and humanities. Plus, as my roommate — a double major in economics, and theater and performance studies — pointed out, it clearly doesn’t characterize the intellectual passions of many students.
But, like many other students at Stanford, as I try to figure out our lives, I can understand the remaining truth in those articles. At Stanford, computer science has become the major of choice for those who, like us, came to Stanford unsure about our futures. After all, in a post-recession economy, the major offers the rare combination of job security in the tech-rich Silicon Valley and the opportunity to start one’s own ventures. That dual use is a significant reason why computer science recently passed human biology as Stanford’s most popular major.
However, that technology focus has had some markedly negative impacts upon student culture, and it’s there that the “Get Rich U” stereotype holds some merit.
At Stanford, the proverbial college coffee-house conversations rarely revolve around politics or philosophy. Rather, when eating dinner at the CoHo during finals week, my friends and I heard students planning “Instagram for Quora” (whatever that entails) and venture capitalist news and startup buzz are commonly heard talking points around campus eateries.
Though probably inevitable when surrounded by Silicon Valley, the presence of “startup culture” can twist students’ goals. I know many students, once passionate about social change, who now plan to work for tech giants and make comfortable six-figure salaries. Though they will guarantee their financial securities, their idealistic passion for helping others has largely subsided. Once channeled through direct interactions with the less fortunate, many instead hope that technology can serve as an indirect vector for social change.
Are those the dreams we want students to have?
Internet-era technology has benefited billions of people and has connected our world in an unprecedented way. Stanford students have the ability to steward not only that revolution, but also many other, greater forces for social good. Urban education, global income inequality and climate change are topics discussed around campus — how much do we plan to do anything about them post-graduation? Efforts like Stand With Leah and Fossil Free Stanford are examples of incredibly important student activism, but they shouldn’t end on campus.
Rather, we as students should harness the creative energy around us to help alleviate such issues, both at home and abroad, starting while at Stanford and continuing after we leave. Financial stability and comfort matter, but perhaps it’s more important to step outside our comfort zones. After all, we are the 5.07 percent; we have incredible talent and have been given great privilege.
Maybe it’s time for Stanford students — past, present and future — to reconsider their very dreams in the first place.
By dreaming for others rather than ourselves we can help eradicate the greatest challenges facing humanity. Along the way, perhaps we’ll find self-fulfillment that money can’t buy.
Contact Debnil Sur at email@example.com.