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The Nerds have inherited the Earth

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The phrase “Ivy League” evokes power, wealth and prestige. Harvard in particular has always held an almost mythical spot in the hearts of aspiring students across the country and the world. A book titled “Harvard Girl” that describes how a pair of Chinese parents planned their daughter’s life so that she was eventually accepted into Harvard became a bestseller in China in the early 2000s, highlighting a society obsessed with academic achievements. For many, Harvard was the pinnacle of tertiary education. Today, that is changing.

However, in the recent 2014 Princeton Review survey of prospective college students and their parents, Stanford beat Harvard as the most named “dream college” by both students and parents. It also had the lowest acceptance rate for undergraduates in the country. In response, a New York Times article proclaims that for students today, Harvard is the “Stanford of the East.” There is a strong sense that Stanford, a relatively young school located far away from the traditional East Coast powerhouses, is on the rise.

What makes a top school? It is an oft-repeated mantra amongst some circles that the Ivy League schools do not necessarily practice better pedagogy compared to the public schools, but they offer more opportunities. Opportunities are the result of the social capital of a school. Harvard has traditionally been the alma mater of government and business leaders, and its extensive alumni network in those power circles gives students access to exclusive opportunities not available to others.

In that light, the rising popularity of Stanford can be seen in parallel to the declining prestige of traditional bases of power such as government and banks. Whether these institutions have truly declined in their influence over society is up for debate, but there is clearly a perception that in the age of Google and Facebook, it is the power of technology that creates social change. If there is one thing that many bright young minds crave for, it is the power to be the driver of positive reform.

When Harvard renamed its Graduate School of Public Administration to the John F. Kennedy School of Government in the ’60s, the federal government was an agent of postwar change that bettered and inspired the lives of people. The GI Bill, the interstate highway system, the space program and the investments in infrastructure and academia that eventually gave birth to the Internet itself are all examples of big government programs of that bygone era that appealed to the technocratic problem-solving aspirations of bright college students thinking about their future careers. To enter public service was to become an agent of change.

Today, the talented young people who want to change the world are working for tech companies. Efforts like Google’s self-driving cars or SpaceX’s Mars One mission are the spiritual successors to big government projects of the past: long-term endeavors with the goals of promoting human progress. These are things that people no longer perceive government doing. A 2013 survey found more than half of Americans feel government is generally a “burdensome part of society that impedes the ability of people to improve their lives.” In the age of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, it is no surprise that Harvard, as the gateway to traditional power, is losing some of its inspirational shine.

The story of Silicon Valley, to which Stanford’s rising prestige is tied, is a coming-of-age story. Many of those who work in tech today remember going online for the first time in the ’90s and knew, in spite of the poor user interface and low speed connections, that the world as we knew it was about to be transformed. Instantaneous rich digital interactions were going to disrupt and radically improve every industry. In that future, understanding technology would become as powerful as understanding people. Instead of reading Plato and studying democracy, they believed they simply had to master the language of the machines to build better societies. The nerds were biding their time.

Today, the nerds seem to have been largely proven right. Tech companies have grown from scrappy underdogs into giant incumbents dominant in the various verticals they enter. Stanford, self-proclaimed “Nerd Nation” and birthplace of most of these giants, saw its social capital and prestige dramatically increased as a consequence. In the world’s perception of Stanford and Harvard, we see the shadows cast by larger forces of society at play. With power comes responsibility. Just as Stanford is dealing with the unfamiliar sensation of being the new incumbent, Silicon Valley will have to grow to accept the responsibilities that have been thrust upon it by its own success. The nerds in charge today cannot continue to behave like the underdog. If there is one thing worse than elitism, it is to be an elite in denial.

Contact Raven Jiang at jcx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Raven Jiang '15 is a senior majoring in Computer Science. He grew up in Singapore and continues to use metric units. Having grown up with Asimov and Clarke, he lives in the future more than he does the present. You can contact Raven at jcx@stanford.edu.